Long before bookshops had entire sections devoted to ‘Mind & Spirit’, my mother had a self-help book (American, of course) with the title of Don’t Say Yes When you Want to Say No. Seeing this lying around the house I couldn’t understand the point. Why read a book about saying No? Surely grown-ups get to say what they like, whenever they like? For most young children, articulating the word No is not usually difficult.
Despite this early introduction to the ‘I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Say-Yes-Issue’, like most people, I was a while into adulthood before I fully grasped the ‘obligation trap’ of saying Yes. In the big, bad world of work, I came to see those constant appeals for favours outside of my main remit as annoying distractions, robbing precious time and derailing previous plans. In an attempt to stop the constant nagging, an exasperated “Ok, yes!” was often potentially fatal: it meant having even more to fit in and made me a time-management dummy.
Whether for work, domestic or social, we’ve all submitted to something only to end up regretting it and then getting tied up in knots when we try to extricate ourselves later. Typical situations range from dealing with children who are strong-willed (the experts’ term, not mine), to requests for help from friends and colleagues. We are pulled by client demands too – and don’t get me started on that prospect or lapsed customer you’re carefully nurturing but who has you running around on fact-finding missions, free advice or revised proposals/quotes. “Time waster!” many a hard-bitten sales rep will mutter, but for most of us, our better nature will respond, with motives varying from wanting to be liked, appearing a dynamic and capable multi-tasker, through to just being helpful.
So, what to do?
As ever, it can be down to the right words. But the right words are no use if you are caught unawares and start umming and ahhing, and then, embarrassed at the awkward pause have to say yes, alright, it’s really no problem. Practice to yourself (or the dog) phrases such as “I would love to, but…” or “I’m about to start on a big project/assignment/proposal/pitch, there’s no time to do it.” And try to sound assertive. Requesters of the trivial or social variety will most likely get the message without you needing to explain further. Only the most crass will wait to hear you out before going into full persuasive mode – in which case stand your ground with a smile and a sorry. Remember, you have a life whose purpose isn’t for spur of the moment requests. You are busy with commitments: your own, as well as work.
Client, customer or prospect demands are of course harder. Business is precious and the lure of a potential sale makes cowards of us all. For these reasons I always advise to play along and don’t lose your ‘sales hat’. By this I mean that you should never forget to sell the killer USPs of your company, product or service, reminding prospects of the benefits of becoming a fully engaged customer. Appropriately pitched, some humour can go a long way, e.g. saying something with a smile along the lines of “We could also do this for you, as well as x and y once you’ve come on board with us, of course… ” Or “Well, x is a strong area of expertise for us and you’re always welcome to join our many satisfied customers!”
Final note: I checked to see if DSYWYWTSN still exists and, amazingly, used copies are still available, and there’s an unabridged audio edition too. It must have gone to a gazillion reprints since it was first published in 1975. Almost forty years on, there’s no question that the husband and wife team who wrote it were on to something which is still relevant for many of us today.