How to Say a Different Kind of No


At work, repeatedly we have to say no to internal customer requests because they aren’t priorities or because we aren’t the people who can help them. The problem is that our staff workers have learned to say no too well and it’s becoming a negative experience for our internal customers. What ideas do you have for saying no without turning off our internal customers?

What auspicious timing. I’ve been thinking about this very topic because of a recent experience I had in the Mumbai Airport. Having just finished working with a group of remarkable leaders from Southeast Asia, I was in a pretty perky mood when I approached the reservation agent to check in. I offered a cheery “Hello!” to the agent, who simply stared at me in response. At first I assumed she might be deep in thought on some other topic, so I said a bit louder, “Good afternoon!” She cocked her head to the side, closed and opened her eyes slowly, and said, “I heard you. What do you want?” Apparently her day wasn’t going as well as mine.

Simply Say No

Simply Say No

I told her my destination, handed her my ID, and then asked, “Is my flight on time?” To that she answered… drum roll… “No.” I thought I saw a slight smile creep up her face.

Now, the information she provided me was extremely correct. So why did I feel less than grateful for her extremely correct information? It wasn’t the no that hurt, it absolutely was the story I told myself concerning the no.

When you tell people no, there are two problems you can create; the first is disappointment.  Second is disrespect. The first says, “The world isn’t going to work the way you hoped it would.” The second says, “And I don’t really care!”

While you may occasionally need to create the first problem, you need never create the second. In fact, the primary one feels less vexing if delivered by someone who assiduously avoids the second.

Here are some things to keep in mind when delivering a no.

Find the simplest way to say yes. Even if you can’t do everything the customers want, show you care by finding a way to mitigate the disappointment.

Help, don’t scold. It sounds as like a part of your problem is that people make requests of your team that don’t suit your scope or role. Of course, it would be extremely inefficient and a misuse of your scarce resources to say yes when your duties are in another direction. In this case, you can still show you care by not just saying, “We don’t do that,” but actually taking the customer’s hand to guide them to the place that does.

Manage the story. An unexplained no feels much different from a no with a reason. When someone tells us no, our brains kick into assessment mode to determine whether this person is celebrating our disappointment (meaning they are a potential threat) or is sympathetic with it. All you need do to communicate the latter and avoid the former is offer a small explanation. There is a seven-second difference between “The movie is sold out” and “I’m sorry, we just sold the last ticket. A large group of senior citizens came in a bus to this showing.” But the two feel much different.

I’m impressed that you are aware of the need to offer a different kind of no. It speaks to your concern for your customers and desire to serve.