Most of us don’t like to hear the word, “No”, and it’s one of the most difficult messages managers have to deliver. It’s also difficult for sales people to say. It’s hard for teachers and parents, too. But it’s essential.

All of us want to be supportive, positive, and agreeable all the time so we can get along and be the “good guy” when developing partnerships or dealing with colleagues, customers, students, or children. That’s nice, but it doesn’t work well, particularly not over a long period of time. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on leadership abilities and responsibilities.

By not placing limitations on behaviors, managers and others in authority may unintentionally encourage poor performance from people who work under their direction. No one can be ‘Mr. Nice or Mrs. Nice” all the time.

In business settings a salesperson who overpromises might cause severe future problems when misled customers expect what will not be delivered.

When a teacher doesn’t say “No”, discipline and performance might decline, and little learning occurs.

When parents don’t say “No” at appropriate times, children learn its OK to misbehave, make nose, and be disruptive any place and any time they desire.

The ability to say, “No” and the skill to say it effectively require focus as well as a bit of practice.

Here is a suggestion to consider. When you must say “No” to an employee, a customer, or anyone else, say it clearly and quickly, but never in anger. And be prepared to explain your position.

Then where appropriate, offer an option or an alternative in order to maintain the relationship. “No” is a stop sign, but it doesn’t signal finality.

Consider this hypothetical situation between a manager and an employee, and look at a suggested optional behavior. Because two parties are involved it’s necessary to be conscious of how specific language is used. Choosing the pronouns, “I” or “You” might not seem too important; they are significant, however.

Select and position the pronouns so the employee must act or commit to an action or a behavior before you do. That way, what will happen next is conditional on the other person’s action. The other person will see the give-and-take in the interaction when you use this sequence:

“If you_______________, then I ________________.

Here are a couple of examples: To an employee, “If you meet the budget goals, then I’ll endorse your proposed schedule changes.”

Say to a customer, “”If you’ll describe the delivery changes you’re looking for, then I’ll be able to look for other possibilities.”

With this simple strategy you’ll always establish an exchange that begins with that other person. If you switch the location of the pronouns and say, “I’ll do this ___ if you’ll do that, the initial responsible party changes. Don’t commit to doing something until the other party recognizes he or she must make the first move.

Now for the “No” part. No one likes to hear that word. If you provide an explanation, it’s easier to accept. Say NO and then explain. Here’s a little rhyme to help remember the sequence of the focus and the placement of the pronouns. When you find it necessary to say No, do it this way.

“No. Here’s why _______. If you _____, then I ____ ”

That rhyme probably won’t make saying “No” easy, but it will provide you with a way to cover unpleasant territory quickly without stumbling.

One more point about saying No. The “Here’s why” statement shouldn’t put someone else in a tight spot. Don’t say, “I’d like to revise the numbers for you, but my manager won’t allow it. Such a statement establishes another possible conflict and another possible round of debates. And it’s unprofessional!

It also demonstrates to the customer or the employee there is split within your organization. It verbalizes that you don’t agree with your superior or with company policy. A bad idea!

So, when necessary, say No quickly and clearly, but not harshly.

Make a clear statement so there is no confusion or misunderstanding. That’s helpful for all parties involved. 

Siesta Key resident J. Robert Parkinson, who has a doctorate in communications from Syracuse University, is an author, executive communication coach and consultant to companies throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include, "Be as Good as You Think You Are" (Motivational Press), written with his wife, Eileen; "Becoming a Successful Manager" (McGraw-Hill) and "You Can't Push A String" (Black Opal Books). Contact him at joropa@northwestern.edu.