Improve your business by learning to say no

Learning to say 'no' is one of the most important skills you will ever need. It's also one of the skills that, particularly as Brits, we find difficult to grasp. As with all skills though, it gets easier with practice. However, saying no is really just a physical expression of the core issue I want to deal with - setting boundaries. There have been some excellent books written on the subject, and although I can't cover such a broad subject in one article, I hope that I can provide some practical way to improve both your business and your personal relationships.

Context

In 2013, I got divorced. As with all breakups, the reasons were many and complicated, and none of them are up for public scrutiny. I met with a counsellor for a year to help work out what had gone wrong and why. I worked incredibly hard to change the aspects of my character that I knew were flawed, and to prevent myself from ever having to go through it again in future.

In the following months, it became clear that an element of my personality I wanted to change was that I had weak boundaries. I was walked over, and I didn't stand up for myself. Today, I'm clear about how I feel and assertive in the way I deal with situations I'm not happy with. Learning how to say no in the right way improves your relationships, and therefore your business.

You only need to change if you want to

I never cared much about what people think of me, but invariably at some point in your life, someone is going to say something to you which hurts, regardless of whether it's true or not. This can really damage what you think about yourself if you let it. A wise friend of mine gave me this advice for when someone is slating your character:

"If it's not true, ignore it. If it is true but it doesn't bother you, ignore it. You only need to change something if it is true and you want to do something about it."

That phrase reminded me that I'm in charge of my character, and it's my responsibility alone to work on the aspects that I want to change. There are plenty of things that people may not like about me, but if I like them then why change? You are in control of who you are. You are free to work on your character as you choose and to become who you want to be.

Say no to what?

Today we have countless things that demand our time. Emails, phone calls, meetings, bug fixes, new projects, maintenance, the list goes on. If you're being pulled in more directions than you have limbs, decide what has the highest priority and tell the other people involved as soon as possible. Saying no is not about being selfish, it's about being fair to the others around you. If you've got a deadline for 5pm and someone asks to have a meeting at 4, don't agree to both, then give the meeting half your attention and fail to meet the deadline. Decide which is more important and let the other person know that you won't be able to meet their request.

Being able to say no simply means taking charge of what you spend your energy on.

For example, I was working on a project a few years ago which needed doing by the end of the day. I could do it, but it was going to be tight. At 4pm another job came in which also 'needed' doing by the end of the day (there were a lot of 'needs' and 'urgents' at my last job). In a situation like this you have a choice to make; agree to do both and fail at least one of them, sacrifice something else, or make a decision on which you're able to do. If you're working for someone who is asking you to do both, ask them which has the highest priority and let them make the decision. Be positive about it though; try, "I'd love to help as best I can. We have X amount of time left; which would you like me to tackle first?". Obviously it doesn't always happen like that in an ideal world, but the important thing is to be clear with people rather than agreeing to everything.

Sticking to what you do best

The web development world is constantly changing, and almost every job I work on involves a new challenge, a technology I haven't worked with before or a solution that 's specific to that project. I love that aspect of my job, I love finding answers to problems and finding an answer to a problem that will makes a client's life easier.

I'm a good front-end developer. I make responsive websites that work well on lots of different devices and integrate them with a content management system. I know that I'm good at what I do.

However, several times this year I've been approached to undertake a job which falls completely outside my area of expertise. When that happens, it's not right for me to bluff my way through and pretend I know what I'm doing. Out of respect for both the client and my own business, the right thing to do is say "I'm sorry, I'd love to work on that project with you but it's not my area of expertise. If I can help at all with X do let me know" and point them in the direction of someone who can help, if you know anyone. My experience of that so far is that people really appreciate you being honest with them and are far more likely to want to work with you in future on something you can do than if you pretended you knew what you were doing and failed to deliver.

Why say no?

Saying no isn't about being difficult; it's about protecting yourself so that you can spend your energy on the areas that are most important. It helps to avoid projects and people that drain energy, and focus on the things that matter. Learning to say no can help avoid the following situations:

  • Unnecessary meetings
  • Working excessive overtime
  • Being asked to lie for your boss
  • Sacrificing other areas of life to work
  • Scope creep
  • Clients with unrealistic expectations
  • Non-paying clients
  • Unrealistic deadlines

Let's take a quick look at avoiding unrealistic expectations. At the end of 2013 I went for a job interview at a local design agency. One of the questions I asked them was "What is your philosophy on work / life balance?". In not so many words, the answer was that there wasn't a balance. Work came above absolutely everything. The interviewer informed me that "My wife knows I work 5 days a week" and that they only see each other at weekends. That answer sealed my decision on taking my relationship with them any further.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my job. Web development for me is the perfect blend of creativity and technical code, but I also have other areas of life that I care about and enjoy. It became apparent very quickly at my first full time job that it was standard practice for employees to be in the office for 10 hours a day. Because of this, there was a lot of chatter in the office, lots of downtime, and people were a lot less productive than if they were there for a shorter amount of time but more focused.

I made a decision to leave my desk and walk out the door at 17.45 every day unless it was an actual emergency. I was able to focus better for the time I was at work, and I was clear about when jobs would be done by. It may have appeared that I wasn't pulling my weight, but I believe I was being fairer to my employers by managing their expectations of me, and maintaining my mental health to work better for the hours I was there.

Summary

Over the coming weeks I'll be covering some of the above points in more detail. Setting boundaries improves all areas of life, but in summary, let's cover the advantages of learning to say no:

  • Saying no helps to set realistic expectations
  • Saying no to jobs you can't do improves trust
  • Saying no to 'bad' jobs gives you more time to focus on worthwhile ones
  • Saying no helps to build confidence
  • Saying no puts you in control of how you spend your time

I'd love to hear your views on this article, have you tried saying no? Do you disagree with what I've said? Leave a comment!

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