Do You Really Know The Right Way To Say No?

By Brett Fox

“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today.  I really appreciate it, but I don’t see a fit for you in our organization,” the CEO said to me.

The CEO’s tone was firm and even pleasant.  He certainly wasn’t being blunt to hurt me.  In fact, I think he was trying to help me.

And I knew he was right.  I wasn’t really a fit.

So, we shook hands, and I walked back to my car.  I wasn’t angry.

I can’t say I was happy because who wants to hear, “No,” but I was actually pleased with the results.

I’ve been told “No” a lot in my life.  But, up until then, I’d never been told “No” for something important in that way.

Usually, the “No Thank You” is delivered in the worst way possible.  We’ve all experienced variations of them.  And, I’m not proud of it, but I’ve used some of these myself:

Here are some of my favorite (worst) ways to tell someone “No”:

A.    The Ignore.   We’ve all experienced this one.  You have a great first meeting, and it seems like you’re on the path to getting to the next phase.

You agree to meet again soon.  You email to set up the next meeting, and what do you hear back?  Nothing.  So, you do what any aggressive person does and email the person again, and what do you hear?


That’s the Ignore.  We’ve all had this one happen.

B.    The Blow Off.  This classic maneuver involves agreeing to meet a second time, then scheduling the meeting and never showing up for the meeting.  Then, the person never shows up to the second meeting.

Worse yet, they never call you back or acknowledge your emails.  That’s why I consider it a classic maneuver.

C.    The I’ll Call You Back.   Maybe the person meant to call you, but they never do.  Then, the behavior reverts back to the Ignore or the Blow Off.  You reach out, but they never call you back.

D.    The ‘I’m Busy for the Next 3 Months’.  I saw this one executed by a VC I was working with when I was an Entrepreneur in Residence.

He had received a blind email from an entrepreneur that I happened to know, asking for a meeting.  The VC asked me my opinion of the entrepreneur, and I told him I didn’t think highly of him.

The VC blind copied me on his response, “I’m busy for the next 3 months…”

E.    The I’m Going To Shit All Over You While I Tell You No.  I saved the worst for last.  It’s bad enough to hear, “No,” but do you need to drive a stake into someone’s heart while doing it?

The answer is apparently yes.  I had this one happen to me once (Read:

Worse yet, they do it under the guise of, “I’m just trying to give you a little constructive feedback.”  Feedback maybe.  Constructive? Hardly.

The result is not good for anyone involved.

Do you notice the one and only proper way to say, “No,” that isn’t in the list?

That’s right.  Surely you remember the "Just Say No”.

Why don’t people just say, "No"?

We’ve been trained our whole life to say, “Yes,” says Susan Newman, author of The Book of NO—250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever:

  • As children, saying, “No,” to our parents in frowned upon, then…
  • As we reach adulthood, saying, “No” is not socially or culturally acceptable, and…
  • We get anxious about saying, “No,” so we likely use one of the five strategies above to say, “No.”

And that’s too bad because there are benefits to just telling someone, “No.”

  1. You don’t have to think about saying, “No,” anymore.  Many people fret over having to face a tough decision.  Once you make the decision to say, “No,” and you say it, you can move on without guilt.
  2. You’re helping the other side.  Remember, you’re dealing with someone that is trying to make decisions about their life/career/company as well.    Sure, they want to hear, “Yes,” but telling them, “No,” as quickly as you can helps them move on quickly too.
  3. It’s a small world.  And the world’s getting smaller every day.   The person you say, “No,” to today may become a business partner tomorrow.  I’ve done many deals with people who previously told me, “No,” or I said, “No,” to.
  4. You can actually build goodwill.  Set a goal for yourself of making every person you say, “No,” to an advocate for you.  It’s tough, but handling yourself with class and grace gives you the best chance of pulling this off.
  5. You’ll feel better about yourself.  Telling someone, “No,” tactfully with class and grace is the right thing to do.  And you always feel better when you do the right thing.

Take the “Just Say No” challenge(1)

Most of us, myself included, use the Ignore, the Blow Off, or the "I’ll Call You Back” in situations where a polite “No” delivered with class and grace would be better for both parties.

So, take one of these situations every day for the next week, and say, “No,” with class and grace.  You will feel better and (amazingly) so will the person you say “No,” to.

It’s A Smaller World Than You Think

My wife and I bought a house years ago that we still live in today.  We love our house and we love our neighborhood.

One day, about one month after we moved in, we were taking a walk, and who did we see but the CEO who so properly told me, “No,” a couple years earlier.  It turns out that he owns a home a few houses away from ours.

Can you imagine how uncomfortable he and I would have been if he had been a jerk?

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1.  Let me know the results of the “Just Say No Challenge” by responding to this email.  And yes, I read all my emails.

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Pictures: Depositphotos