Saying No: Explain and Empower

A few years ago I was working with a development team, and whilst they were building from my plan they would come up with product ideas.

I didn’t like some of the suggestions, and I would deal with them by saying “Maybe we can do that in the next version”. It was easier than talking about why I didn't like the idea, and I used this phrase so often that it became a joke. An idea I didn’t like was met with the response: “Version 2”.

We laughed, or we appeared to laugh, but looking back I realise I was making a big mistake. Someone had come up with an idea. They’d put time and effort in to thinking about it, and had brought it to me. So what if the idea wasn’t right?

They deserved a better response than a joke. I also felt bad rejecting ideas flippantly, and without further discussion.

It’s not easy to say no.

From the sales call you get for the product that you’re not interested in (“Not right now, can you call back in a few months?”) to the idea you don’t like (“That’s cool, let me think about that”) to the business that wants to partner with you (“We’re super busy building, maybe talk in a year?”) we’re faced with many moments on a daily basis when it’s just quicker to fob someone off.

To leave someone in limbo is often easier than to explain the truth. Explaining takes time; it leads to more questions; it can turn the situation around on to the No-sayer; it’s energy sapping; it’s hard!

Changing from an “excuser” to an “explainer” isn’t easy. Like the unfit, unconfident person venturing in to the gym for the first time, you’ll have a rough ride at the start.

You’ll get it wrong (some situations don’t need an explanation – aggressive sales people on the phone will use your explanation to keep the sales pitch going) and there’ll be frustration.

So why bother explaining?

If the end result is the same (Something doesn’t happen) why take the extra time to say no and explain?

In most situations the “explainer” will come out better – not only are you doing something that’s morally right, but you’re learning more about the person you’re saying no to. Why did they put forward that idea? What was their aim of that suggestion? What are the specifics of what they're offering?

You’re also learning more. Perhaps you misunderstood what was on offer; maybe there’s something in the idea that you could take forwards in a different way.

For the person hearing the no, but also hearing the explanation, they become wiser. Why was their idea not right? Why don’t you want to buy from them? Clear, sensible, unemotional explanations are powerful. There might be a sting, but there’s learning in that, and a different type of resentment – if any at all.

The role of explainer isn’t one built on power, or position. The explainer knows that the more they explain, the stronger they, and others, get.