Letting Them Down Gently: Saying No Professionally

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At some point in the career of a business analysis or product professional, you’ll have to say “no.” This can happen whether you are a formal or informal leader. Saying no is hard because we feel like we are going back on a promise or we are failing to deliver. Regardless of how you got to “no” it’s important to deliver the message professionally and diplomatically so the work can move forward.

You can’t just say “no” and leave. Delivering the news requires honesty, respect and listening. Let’s dive into what that looks like.

Prepare Yourself

Saying no can be hard. You need to be ready as possible to deliver that news.

  • Do you have the facts behind the decision and are you able to explain them confidently?
  • Are there options or alternatives that you need you to discuss?
  • Can the decision be reconsidered? Make sure you understand under what conditions the decision can be renegotiated or reversed.
  • Is there a timeline or important dates that the receiver needs to be aware of? Bring that information in writing, if possible.

Finally, how do you feel about the news you are about to deliver? We can unintentionally bring our negative feelings into the delivery of the message. If you are feeling unsettled about the decision, give yourself a bit more time to get your emotions in check so that you can deliver the message professionally.

Be honest

Get to the point when saying no. Being vague or going on with details about how the decision came to be makes things confusing. This can come across to the receiver that you are hiding something.

Delivering bad news can be especially hard when you are the messenger, not the decision maker behind the decision. Regardless, giving information honestly is essential. Honesty preserves the relationship. If you have a established trust with the person to whom you are saying no, the news is little more than just a conversation between 2 colleagues.

Stick to the Facts

Sometimes “no” doesn’t mean “never.” It means “not now.” Provide details, where you can, about exactly what no means. Don’t provide your opinions or discuss hypotheticals about a set of facts that don’t apply to this decision. Stick to the facts that led to this decision to say no.

Allowing space shouldn’t be confused with allowing them to renegotiate the decision. Asking to reconsider is also a very human response. Assuming that the decision is non-negotiable, you need to explain that the decision is final and they need to be ready to move to the next steps. Help them identify what they can do next.

Allow space for listening and answering questions

I’ve been there. You want to swoop in, say “no,” and move on to the next thing on your list. Avoid that reaction. Delivering potentially bad or disappointing news is uncomfortable. It’s natural to want to get it over with. But don’t do that. You want to maintain the relationship with the person you’re letting down. To do that, you need to make space to hear their concerns and to answer their questions.

Rejection – or perceived rejection – can trigger emotions that have nothing to do with a business decision. Give the person space to process their initial emotion. Do that first by listening. Are they disappointed? Do they want more information? Do they need to know what the next steps are? These are reasonable reactions and deserve your response. Be prepared to provide more information where you can so their questions are heard.

Wrap Up

Once you’ve delivered the “no” and answered questions, you may have a few loose ends. Go back through the highlights of the discussion and reiterate the next steps. Identify who owns the follow up and when it is due. Where possible, do all of this verbally and follow up in writing. This ensures that you both have walked away with the same understanding of what was discussed. Moreover, it “book ends” the process of delivering the news and marks its final milestone.

Published by Susan Moore

Co-chair Charlotte Carolina Club - Carolina Club Ambassador - Former Chair Jacksonville (FL) Carolina Club - Former Carolina Alumni Admissions Program representative

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