How to Say 'No' the Right Way

We all have to say no at times. Some people find it easier than others. For those who need a little guidance on how to say it more effectively, here are some tips.

By Carl Van

We all have to say no at times. Some people find it easier than others. Whats interesting is that almost all of us struggle with the right way to say it. People who hate to say no find it hard to do, and sometimes do much worse than hurt someone's feelings. They either don't say anything, which passively sends an incorrect message of yes, or they say no in such a way that the other person doesn't really know whats being said, sending the message of "maybe."

People who don't mind saying no don't find it hard to do, but can lack the skills to do it gracefully and often instill hard feelings, even when thats not their intent. For those who have no problem saying no, but need a little guidance on how to say it more effectively, here are some tips.

  • I'm sorry doesn't have to mean youre really sorry. A little empathy can go a long way.
  • Repeat back to the other person his point of view. That will allow him to listen to yours. Once you prove to someone you understand his point of view by repeating it, he can stop explaining it over and over again.
  • You don't have to prove to someone that the situation is his fault. Most people just want empathy, not for you to take the blame. If possible, take his side as much as you can, but return to the situation at hand.
  • Show the other person you wish it could be different. Telling someone, I wish I could do this for you. However, I just cant, is much more powerful than, I won't do this for you because I don't have to.
  • Help solve the problem in another way if possible. Even if alternatives aren't the answer, the fact that you offered shows you care. When being told no, most people can take it a little better if its coming from someone who seems to genuinely care.
  • Avoid the word but when empathizing. When you say, I understand, but, what the other person hears is, I don't understand.

Using the tips above, you can say no and avoid conflict. The following examples show how a different approach can save you from an unpleasant situation.

Scenario 1

Pat is a hotel clerk. It's late at night, and Mr. Donnelly needs a hotel room.

Mr. Donnelly: Look, I really need a room tonight. You're the sixth hotel I've been to and I'm getting really tired.

Pat: I'm sorry, there are no rooms; we're completely booked.

Mr. Donnelly: Please? I'm exhausted.

Pat: I understand, but that doesn't change the fact that we have no rooms.

Mr. Donnelly: But I'm exhausted.

Pat: I understand, but how is that our fault? You should have made a reservation.

Mr. Donnelly: Can't you do something for me?

Pat: (Turning the terminal toward Mr. Donnelly) Look, we have no rooms!

Notice how Pat said she was sorry, but she didn't really convey that very well. She was also concerned with proving Mr. Donnelly was at fault. She offered no real solution, and certainly did not appear that she wished it were different. The next example shows how Pat does when she applies the tips above.

Mr. Donnelly: Look, I really need a room tonight. You're the sixth hotel I've been to and I'm getting really tired.

Pat: Oh, I'm very sorry, there are no rooms; we have a conference here and we're completely booked.

Mr. Donnelly: Please? I'm exhausted.

Pat: Mr. Donnelly, I understand that youre exhausted. I know you don't want to keep searching for a room at other hotels. I see how tired you are and understand what youre going through. Believe me, if I had a room, I would definitely give it to you. I just don't have a room available. I'd do it if I could, but just can't. Can I help you find a room somewhere else?

Mr. Donnelly: Ugh. OK, yes, please!

Pat's approach led to a much better result. Mr. Donnelly isn't thrilled, but hes ready to move on.

Scenario 2

Debbie is a salesperson at a department store. The store has a very strict policy about not accepting returns after 30 days.

Mr. Adam: I want to turn this in for a refund, please.

Debbie: This was purchased over 30 days ago, so I can't do that.

Mr. Adam: I didn't know that when I bought it.

Debbie: I understand, but you should have read the return policy then. It's right there on the sales receipt.

Mr. Adam: Who reads sales receipts?

Debbie: People who want refunds.

Mr. Adam: Come on. It's been 34 days. What's the big deal?

Debbie: I understand, but 30 days is the limit. Sorry. You're going to have to be reasonable about this.

Mr. Adam: (Now angry) I am being reasonable!

Notice how Debbie failed to empathize with the customer. She blamed the customer for not understanding the policy. She even went so far as to imply the customer is an unreasonable person. The next example shows what happens when Debbie approaches the situation with the tips in mind.

Mr. Adam: I want to turn this in for a refund, please.

Debbie: I'm very sorry Mr. Adam, but since this was purchased more than 30 days ago, no refunds are allowed.

Mr. Adam: But I didn't know that.

Debbie: I understand that. It's on the receipt, and often people don't really read their receipts, so I can understand that you didn't know about the policy.

Mr. Adam: Well, I have to return it. I can't use it now and it's expensive.

Debbie: Mr. Adam, I really do understand. This is an expensive item and you are now realizing you can't use it. I truly wish the store policy was different and there was some way to make an exception. The policy is quite firm, however, and there is just no way to provide a refund. Can I help you find something you can exchange it for that might be acceptable to you?

Mr. Adam: Oh OK. Do you have a catalog or something?

Hopefully that sounds a little better as well. Remember, saying no doesn't have to create bad feelings if you show a little empathy. Follow these simple tips and you might just get a little less resistance from people.

Carl Van is a professional public speaker and business-course designer. Hes also president and CEO of an international training company through which he trains and speaks to audiences all over the United States and Canada on customer service, branding, negotiations and time management. Hes the author of Gaining Cooperation. To reach him, call 504.393.4570; visit www.carlvan.org.

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