Refusing requests – saying ‘No’

Helen Blythe Avatar

30 August 2017
Written by Helen Blythe Linked-in icon

At Speak First the summer break is well and truly over. For those of you who work in L&D and HR you’ll no doubt be gearing up for a very busy autumn period and the pressure that can come with that. So how do you stop adding things to your already task-heavy to-do lists?

It can be tempting to just absorb extra work to please others or to take the strain off them but it can lead to working in evenings, at weekends and reducing the quality of the work you’re doing. The key is to think about the things you’re going to need to say ‘no’ to and also to have strategies to do that: 

 A woman using her computer to manage her time

I can’t

Say it like that. Just ‘I can’t’. You may choose to give a reason, but do not feel you have to. You have a right not to have to justify or explain (unless of course it is your boss!).

I can give you five minutes maximum right now

Seek to keep interruptions as short as possible. Giving the person a clear, specific, time limit upfront helps: make it five minutes, three minutes, just one minute, whatever makes sense. Say it right at the beginning of the conversation, and then be true to it. People will get to the point straight away, and you will not have to listen to a lot of waffle. Smile, be friendly – but be firm.

‘I got it’

Some people have a tendency to say things over and over again, often adding detail that is unnecessary and adds no further value. Stuart Levine, from his ‘manifesto’ entitled Reclaim your Life, recommends you say “I got it” in such situations. Sometimes people do not hear you, because they are so into what they are saying – and they plough on. When that happens, gently escalate your response, saying “I got it” a little louder and more clearly. You don’t have to be aggressive. Just let them know firmly that you are ready – keen, determined – to move on.

Be a ‘broken record’

This is a tried-and-tested assertiveness technique that works really well with people who will not take ‘no’ for an answer and keep pushing. Just keep repeating your position using the same phrase over and over again, just like a broken record: ‘I would love to chat with you about the conference now, but I have to complete x by the end of the day.’

Ask interruptors to come prepared

Some people try to figure out what they want to say once they are with you – so the conversation takes twice or three times as long as long as it should. Gently, nicely, ask them if they could in future prepare, so you the meeting could run more effectively. 

‘Do not disturb’

Consider finding some way of signaling when you do not want to be disturbed. I used to work in a small office with someone called Monica who would put on a tall, conical witch’s hat when she was doing a task that required concentration. We all knew we should only speak to her if it was a life or death situation. If it could wait for an hour, we just waited for the hat to come off. A witch’s hat might not be your thing, but maybe you could put something on the top of your computer screen that serves the same function. 

The ‘monkey’ principle

You may be familiar with the ‘monkey’ metaphor used by Ken Blanchard in his popular book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey The monkey is an issue/problem/challenge that is on someone else’s back, but which can, if you allow it, jump onto yours, and become your issue/problem/challenge. Then you have to spend/waste time doing it.

If you accept every interruption, and say yes to every request for help, you will end up with an awful lot of monkeys on your back – and your time management will be totally out of control. So, my suggestion is to follow three important monkey principles:

1. Only take on monkeys you really care about

2. If you do decide to help someone with a monkey, do not take ownership of it – always give it back to them

3. Try to give some of your monkeys to other capable people, to free up more of your time