How to Say No and Still Give the Person What They Want

Are you familiar with this scenario? Your boss/client hands you a bad brief. You suspect, actually, you know what you’ve been asked to do won’t work. Still, you are going to pull it off to the best of your ability. And at the end of it all, your boss/client will look at all your work and say, ‘What’s that? It’s not what I wanted!’

It’s a dilemma! Do you say, ‘no’ at the risk of being chastised? Or, agree and have your colleagues who will aid in the production or delivery of the request be distressed with your order-take mindset. Your boss/client may not realize they want you to fit a square peg in a round hole. Or they might think that they can reshape your square peg into their hole. Regardless of which, they don’t realize that their inefficient briefing is creating a productivity issue.

Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best. – John Maxwell

Does pushing back on the request have to mean you say, ‘No I can’t / won’t do that’?

And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. …it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important. – Steve Jobs

That’s easy for Steve Jobs to say. How you say, ‘no’ matters. How about we try to reframe the request so that the order-issuer doesn’t hear ’no’ or think of you as uncooperative? First, some golden rules:

  • Listen and observe carefully and accurately
  • Constantly seek clarification, ‘When you say___, what specifically do you mean?
  • Do not assume very much. This is what leads to surprises down the road.

Based on the golden rules, here are some better questions to ask that will help them enhance their brief:

So how can I be useful to you during this briefing today?

What was your goal in writing / issuing this brief?

Thank you for the direction. Let me clarify what I heard you saying…(restate what they said using their language, not your interpretation). Then, Is that what you asked for?

My interpretation of what you said was… (frame it in ways that make sense to you). Did I get that right?

Which of the project / team / organization’s goals do you think this work can best help achieve? If you had the ideal outcome from this briefing how would things be better or different?

How will this work have helped this organization, this department, and you to succeed?

You say you need this done by (date) for x amount of money. How will this work outcome have helped you achieve good things?

What can you imagine are the most positive outcomes for this work? What are your grounds for optimism that this project will be a great success?

What’s working on this sort of project lately, or in the past? What would you want done differently this time?

What three wishes do you have for this project?

Suppose that when I came in on the project it was a 3 (out of 10), and when the goal was achieved it was a 9… what would we have done to make it work? On a scale of 1-10 (10 is highest), how satisfied are you that this brief will get you great results?

Help them find out for themselves what they want by asking them better questions.

Suppose we deliver that as you requested, what do you see it looking like? If they say, ‘I don’t know, you solve it,’ diligently scale down to some of their small expectations

If we are successful, how will that work for some of your stakeholders, e.g., your boss, colleagues, other departments, the customer, etc.?

Sounds like you’ve been successful at this in the past. How did it work then? If they say, ‘It didn’t work,’ ask them what they learned as a result.

What gives you optimism that we can deliver on this brief?

Suppose we are successful, how do you see this delivering on the larger outcomes of your work (name them if you can)?

If you were in my shoes, what elements of this brief would you be worried about?

Imagine we have delivered on the request and it has been produced. What will the end users be saying about it? How will it be motivating / stimulating to them? How will they be responding?

When the boss / client is still not collaborating:

Sounds like you know what you want and yet it’s not yet really clear to me. Thinking of my / our team’s expertise, what sort of challenges do you expect we will have in implementing this brief?

Overall, find out what the boss / client is really looking for. Saying no is your last resort. So, check against your own vision and standards and step back from the project to see if you want to take the risk of doing what they initially asked.

Let them talk themselves into the solution they are looking for.