Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Process For Saying "No"

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Consider the following hypothetical scenario. I know it's a stretch - this never happens to any of us - but let's use our imagination...

We've been through it time and time again. The requests keep coming, and the organization keeps taking them in. Our capacity (considered individually, as a team, or as an organization) to satisfy the requests has long been over-committed, and the team is staying afloat only by extraordinary effort and sheer determination. But now the band is winding too tightly, and the cracks in the armour have begun to show - and stuff's starting to fall through those cracks.

As I said, this sort of thing rarely happens to any of us, but let's talk it over and be prepared just in case. As with any risky proposition, it's good to have a strategy in place. We need to develop a response pattern that will increase the likelihood of success... just in case.

Considering the scenario at hand, we could pursue a few different options. For example, we could continue to advance the "just say yes" mantra, or we could go hard core and beat the "just say no" drum. It seems reasonable to believe each of these approaches has its place, but "just say yes" is surely what got us into this mess to start with. On the other hand, "just say no" may work well if your product is shoes, but it's unlikely to be effective in today's dynamic and fast-paced business climate.

Looking at it more closely, we can see a fatal flaw in the general application of each these perspectives: they're both one-sided. They're designed to create a "Winner" and a "Loser," and they always leave someone feeling dissatisfied with unmet needs. Another important limitation of the "Just Say Yes" and "Just Say No" philosophies is their immersion in a principle based on "or" rather than "and". We need something more balanced, something that can please all parties, and something that can create "win win" outcomes. You know, we need to leverage our synergies for win-win scenarios." Sorry! It's been one of those days. Seriously, we will benefit (and our "customer" will benefit) from an approach that recognizes and respects the full range of needs and strikes an appropriate and mutually satisfying balance. We need the Process for Saying "No".

The Process for Saying "No"

Step 1. Echo the request

It's critical right up front to establish a common frame of reference. To put it in Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) terms, we want to "seek first to understand." In addition, repeating the request demonstrates an empathetic inclination and lays the groundwork for expressing commitment to the requester's true objectives.

Step 2. Say "no"

Here's where it's easy to head down the wrong path and begin to get in trouble. Rather than beat around the bush when a request cannot be satisfied, it's best to simply be honest and clear. This avoids the risk of ambiguity and misunderstanding and begins to set the stage for the open communication that's so essential in negotiations.

Step 3. Explain the rationale

There's a reason why the request cannot be satisfied, and making that reason clear goes a long way toward validating dependency and establishing trust. Explaining "why" helps to create a foundational sense of "we're in this together."

Step 4. Provide alternative solutions

Now that we've demonstrated commitment, established a common perspective, and created goodwill, we can explore alternatives and discover a mutually satisfying solution. It's important to take the initiative here and show determination coupled with a willingness to be creative.

By following the process for saying "No", it's possible for everyone to come out a winner. Not only are individual needs satisfied, but a degree of partnership is fostered that strengthens the relationship, increases transparency, allows vulnerability, and encourages trust. This is certain to make future exchanges even more productive and healthy.

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