The power of saying ‘NO’ in business

In the movie ‘Yes Man’ Jim Carrey’s perpetually negative character attends a positivity seminar and becomes brainwashed into pursuing an exclusively affirmative life which leads him to a succession of epic experiences. Well I reckon that premise is as bad as the movie itself. I think we all need to learn that saying ‘no’ has more power and resonance than we might imagine…

Let’s be honest, we were all rather good at saying ‘no’ when we were 2 years old. In fact, at that age, it is our most popular word. A recent child behaviour study claimed that toddlers use ‘no’ on average 25-30 times an hour. And boy did we use it to good effect on our parents (and equally how have our own kids wielded the same trick on us, much to the amusement of the grandparents?). And why do they do it? Simple. They know it’s a way of seizing control.

But as we get older, many of us appear to lose the ability to say ‘no’. Psychologists have a term for it – hyperbolic discounting. Sounds like cheap soap to me. But I digress. Basically it means that we are prepared to accept a small reward now rather than wait for a much bigger prize later on. Remember the ‘marshmallow test’ from Stanford University in the 1970’s? Kids were offered one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they could wait for 15 minutes (whilst being left alone with the original marshmallow). No prizes for guessing that the majority of kids chowed down on the solitary snack well before the 15 minutes was up.

The same principle applies in a dialogue. For example, when someone asks an awkward question we feel compelled to answer quickly and because it feels excruciating to refuse, we say ‘yes’ even if it will cause elevated angst later on. Consequently the initial glow of gratitude given by agreeing to do something we don’t actually want to do outweighs the pain of having to do the thing we didn’t want to do in the first place at a later date (if that makes any sense at all).

Anyway, despite the fact that saying ‘no’ makes many of us feel incredibly uncomfortable an article in Psychology Today pours scorn on that notion and extols the virtues of a carefully quoted ‘no’ :

“Wielded wisely, ‘no’ is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free”

And that thought is epitomised by some of the most successful business icons over the past 20 years. Multi-billionaire financier Warren Buffet is famously quoted on the subject…

 “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything”

And the same is true of certain Mr Jobs…

And who would dare argue with the dynamic duo of Buffet and Jobs? Well certainly not me and definitely not Entrepreneur writer Stephen Key. He talks candidly about how difficult it is to reconcile saying ‘no’ in business when your inner demon is telling you that this opportunity may never come your way again. But he recounts that in 90% of all the business deals he has walked away from, the company has come back with a better offer. Quoting Christian Bale’s character in American Hustle

“If you tell them ‘no,’ they will keep coming back for more”

The key insight here is that on every occasion we utter ‘yes’ to a request, we are equally saying ‘no’ to something else that we might be able accomplish with that time. So apparently the trick is to ask yourself that question (i.e. what else could I do with that time?) before you commit to anything. For example when my nearest and dearest asks me the question “do you want to go shopping on Saturday afternoon” I shouldn’t just say yes to please her. Neither should I tell her that I would rather pluck out my eyes with a rusty spoon and replace them with hot coals (even if that may be the truth). Instead I should calmly say “no thanks, I would prefer to go out on my bike for a few hours”. Maybe not the answer she wants to hear but at least it’s honest and it’s better than the alternative… me with my bottom lip hanging out, skulking around outside the changing rooms of various clothes shops with all the other sad dads, all of us wishing we’d had the courage to simply say ‘no’ whilst our wives constantly ask “what’s the matter with you today?”.

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