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How to say no without jeopardising your reputation and career

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Summary

Phil and Alex Gould discuss how to say no, without running the risk of it jeopardising your reputation, your career or your relationships at work. 

Podcast transcription

Alex:  The subject of this podcast is how to say no  you without jeopardising your career, your reputation or your relationship this other people at work.  I thought we might talk through a couple of examples that illustrate slightly different aspects of the skills we teach.  I think people might find this an interesting topic because people bring it up quite a lot, and in fact it’s one of the most frequently asked questions I get invited to speak about.

Phil:  So you’ve got an example of someone who was finding it difficult to say no.

An example from the financial sector - how to say no to extra work (1:30)

Alex:  Yes, this is an example of a chap working in the financial sector, he worked for a bank, who had trouble dealing with people from other departments who kept coming to him interrupting his work in order to request that he does extra work for them by checking their figures and looking over the spreadsheets.

Phil:  So what was actually going on?  They were coming to him with work, and he was under a lot of pressure … how was the conversation going?

Alex:  Well to begin with he would try to explain to them why it was going to be difficult for him to do their work and accommodate what they wanted because he was so busy, but they seemed to ignore that, and kept coming to him anyway.  The trouble was that he was caught.  He wanted to be seen as helpful and friendly.  There was the possibility of a promotion in the offing and he wanted to develop his reputation as somebody who was eager about their work.  But eventually his level of frustration would build to such a head of steam that in the end he’d loose his rag.  He was aware that if he opened his mouth and said something bad, or explosive, or aggressive, that could really damage him and cost him, so he ended up biting his tongue and saying very little, but the problem is that that would still leak out.  He looked very unhappy, and he ended up barking at people, and his boss saw this and got very alarmed.

Phil:  So was he sent on the course?  To find another way of handling this sort of situation?

Alex:  Yes that’s right.  He was being groomed for more senior roles, but his manager needed to have the confidence that he’d be able to be inspiring, and encouraging of people.  When his boss saw him behaving like this he thought it might be dangerous putting him in a situation where he’s responsible for managing a team of other people, if he behaves like this it might turn people right off.

Phil:  What was his attitude to being sent of a course over something so personal?

Alex:  Well to begin with he was pretty unhappy about it, because it was like he was being blamed for other people’s behaviour, and that they were taking advantage, and he was trying to be professional about things, and somehow he was the one who wasn’t doing it right and being sent on a course to deal with it.

Phil:  So initially he was quite resistant to being helped was he?

Alex:  Not for long.  Certainly to begin with he felt got at and unfairly treated.  He did come round to the idea that he could take some responsibility for the way that other people treated him, and if he could do it differently … if he could manage the relationship differently, in the end he got quite excited about what might be possible for him to do.  

Phil:  So would you like to talk us through how your sessions with him went, and what path he trod in order to get from where he was when he was sent on the course to where he wanted to be.

Alex:  Yeah, certainly.  The first thing that we did was to take a look at the way he went about these sort of conversations now, and in order to do that we role-played it. So he briefed me about the kinds of things he colleagues would say, and the kinds of ways that they would respond to him, when he put his hand up and said “I can’t manage this”, and I pretended to be one of them.  I came to him, pretended to be a little bit deaf to his objections.  This was all recorded on a video camera, so that he could then watch himself back.

Phil:  What was his reaction to what he saw and heard?

Alex:  Well he was very surprised because the image he had of himself in his head was totally different to the version of himself that he was able to see when we played it back.

Phil:  What was the image he had in his head?  How did he think he was coming across?

Alex:  Well he though he was being ever so reasonable, ever so logical, ever so nice and friendly, and that the other person was being unreasonable.

Phil:  How did he realise how he was actually coming across to the other person?

Alex:  That he was being a bit subservient on the one hand, lowering his head, speaking quietly, but at the same time looking a bit truculent, a bit like an adolescent, a bit like a teenager.  There was leakage.  There was frustration.  Almost a kind of contempt for the other person that was emanating out from the way he looked and sounded.

Phil:  So you got a lot.  I can imagine that must have shocked him and surprised him to see all that.

Alex:  It was because it wasn’t at all how he imagined that he was looking or sounding.

Phil:  So what happened next in your sessions with him?

How to say no assertively (6:30)

Alex:  Over the course of the training we practiced this many times, and he learnt how to be assertive.  He learnt how to tell the other person truthfully how he was feeling about the pressure they were putting him under.  For example he’d say things like how worried he was that they were coming to him with such little time to do this work.

Phil:  So in a nutshell it sounds like what you showed him that what he could do was to simply say how he felt in an open and honest way.

Alex:  Yes that’s right.  And if the other person was a little hard of hearing, and they hadn’t quite cottoned on the first time, he learnt how to ratchet that up, and then say how alarmed he was about the scenario, about the situation.  He was very surprised how quickly the other person in the role play – in our case the range of other people on the course who were pretending to be colleagues – how very quickly they fell into line.

Phil:  Hmm.  Did you find afterwards how well he got on with it?

Alex:  Yes indeed.  When we spoke again during his follow-up coaching he said that real life follows very closely the way people behaved when they were part of the group on the course, and he was delighted … more to the point his boss was delighted, and he was relieved that when he does this in real life people do get it, and he found that people took him seriously.

How to say no when you don't agree (8:02)

Phil:  You talked about another example?

Alex:  Yes I indeed.  This illustrates something slightly different.  I have in mind an engineer.   A senior engineer who needed to say no to people when they were making contributions and suggestions for planning for a major building project, this is for a chemical plant.  Often people would come in with suggestions that he thought were ludicrous, or balmy, or completely short sighted.  The problem was that he had a reputation for calling a spade a spade, and being very blunt telling people he thought their idea was idiotic, and consequently he was regarded as someone rather cold.  Very skilled, technically extremely competent, and efficient but rather detached and distant.

Phil:  This is very common isn’t it?  A lot of people without realising it behave in a way that makes other people think that they’re being arrogant, and they don’t really mean to be arrogant.  All they’re trying to do it to tell what they see as the truth.

Alex:  Yes, that’s right.  And he was becoming noticeably frustrated when people would say thing that the thought were dangerous.  There was an external organisation, an industry body who were going to have to sign off on this project, they were going to have to put their oar in, and he felt really concerned that somehow they might be mislead by not being given complete information, and that eventually they would have to find out, and if turned out that they weren’t happy and demanded changes and they then a lot of money might be risked … you know … millions of pounds, so he thought it would be better to include them in the planning process sooner rather than later, but other people in the meeting didn’t like that idea.

Phil:  So how did you come to you?  How did you come on the course?

Alex:  Well the training recommended to him.  It came up as part of the appraisal process.  He was told that his manor for dealing with people was getting him into trouble.  He was developing a reputation as someone who was a real cold fish.

Phil:  It sounds as though that might have been a bit career threatening if that had continued.

Alex:  Yes it was.

Phil:  So what happened in the sessions then, can you talk us through that?

Alex:  Yes I pretended to be someone sitting in his meeting, and kept coming up with ludicrous suggestions in order to get a sense of how he goes about this sort of thing at the moment.  He rather carefully explained the logic behind the error of my ways, and I then pretended not to notice, or not to care, or to dismiss his suggestions by saying, “That doesn’t matter because of ... reasons”, and he visibly got frustrated with me.  It really wasn’t difficult pressing this particular button.  And when we played it back he saw himself getting frustrated and irritated …

Phil:  So it was at that point that he said, “Yes I need to change this … I need to find a way of changing this presumably?  He was up for it?  When he saw himself in action the penny dropped and he was up for it.

Alex:  Well yes he was.  He was oblivious that there was an alternative way of doing this your car.  This was a chap who is extremely experienced, he’d been in the industry quite a long time, and this is the way he’s always done it.  Yes he recognised that there was a problem with the way that he was doing it, but he this was all he knew how to do.  The only other way he could think of to avoid the creating a bad atmosphere in the meeting was to keep his trap shut, and he didn’t want to compromise his integrity by being silent when he could see a problem.

Phil:  So it was a bit of challenge for him then to change as it were the habit of a lifetime.

Alex:  I suppose it was, but he did manage it.  He managed it very successfully.  He was eager and he was very willing … what am I trying to say here ...?

Phil:  Well my question is probably unhelpful about the habits of a lifetime, because you didn’t encounter that particular difficulty with this chap.

How to say what you really think when you want to say no to a bad idea (12:12)

Alex:  No.  There was no resistance.  I suppose the thing I’m trying to get across is that despite that fact that he’s a highly intelligent man, and he’s very experienced and been in the industry decades, he was aware that he had this effect on people, but the thought that this was the only way to do it without having to sacrifice his integrity by keeping quiet when he notices something wrong.  It was a new idea to him that it was possible for him to be authentic, and to not have to swallow his words.  He could tell the truth.  He could be real.  He could say what he wanted to say but do it in a way that wouldn’t jeopardise his relationships with other people.

Phil:  Hmm.  So how did it go?  How did you show him how to do that?

Alex:  I was able to demonstrate to him how much more powerful his arguments could be simply by including some data about feelings, his first, and then the other person’s.

Phil:  Give us an idea of what you were guiding him to do.

Alex:  Actually it was two things.  It was teaching him to be assertive, and to say something along the lines of, “I’m really worried that if we follow such-and-such a proposal this bad thing might happen in the future”.

Phil:  Which he’d never said before.  His responses had been sort of negative, and condemning of other people’s ideas.  He’d never actually declared openly that he felt worried about the consequences of those ideas.

Alex:  Yes, his previous version of that would be to say something like, “That’s a really rubbish idea, that’s going to cost us lots of money”.

Phil:  So it sounds as though he was judging the idea as being rubbish instead of stating the fact that there was something in it that was seriously worrying him.

Alex:  Yes, he was implying to the other person that he thought they must be pretty stupid if you’re coming up with an idea like that.  And quite understandably that would rub them up the wrong way.

Phil:  Yep.  You said there were two things.  What was the other thing that he learnt?

Alex:  To tune in on the other persons wave length, and say “I imagine that what’s motiving you to propose what you’re suggesting is because you’re worried about such-and-such”.

Phil:  To actually show some understanding of the idea, and the thoughts behind the idea before what you don’t like and what worries you about it.

Alex:  Yes.  We spent quite a lot of time discussing the likelihood that there is a positive motive behind the other person’s all be it ludicrous sounding suggestion.

Phil:  Was he receptive to that idea?

Alex:  Yes he was, because he does have respect for his colleagues, and he doesn’t think that they’re all complete idiots, so it wasn’t a great stretch to get him to acknowledge that although what they’re saying might be rather distorted and clumsy, at the root of it is probably something that is a legitimate concern.

How to say no without miscommunicating what you really think (15:00)

Phil:  So … actually from what you’re saying, his habitual rather negative response was actually a miscommunication.  He wasn’t giving a truthful impression of what his response to their idea was.  His response to their idea was on the one hand he could see some merit in it, but on the other hand he was very concerned about it, but all he talked about and all that came out was a sort of negative judgment dismissing the idea.

Alex:  Yes that’s right.  Quite. 

Phil:  So what did he learn?

Alex:  He learnt that he could include the usual data that he normally would, so long as he also added into that this new bit of data which is to disclose to the other person, truthfully, how he’s feeling.  He struggled initially with that to identify how he was feeling, and to be able to put that into words, but the language didn’t need to be terribly sophisticated for that.  He could say, “I’m worried”, “I feel bad”, “I unhappy about this”, and that that was plenty good enough.

Phil:  And what happened afterwards.

Alex:  Very soon after we had our training session he had a meeting where he had to put this into practice, and it went incredibly smoothly.  On the course we’d practiced the meeting to prepare for how it might have gone if other people had responded poorly, and his report back afterwards was that it’d gone even smoother than we’d rehearsed it.  It went very successfully.  People where very happy to take his advice and suggestions and follow his recommendations.  Apparently there was no friction what-so-ever.

Phil:  It’s interesting isn’t it, because actually you trained him, showed him how he could be in a way kind of kinder, and more gentle with people, and yet the end result was that it was harder for people to resist what he was saying.  It made people much more willing to see it his way.

Alex:  Yes absolutely.  Yep.  It was a smoother, briefer conversation that ended up being much more successful.

Phil:  Oh that too?  It took less time.  Because I suppose because he didn’t get involved in heated arguments.

Alex:  Yes that’s right.  People didn’t feel personally attacked.  People didn’t misinterpret and think that he was being aggressive, or abusive.

Phil:  So he learnt how to be true to his own concerns, but at the same time treat others and their ideas with respect.

Alex:  Yeah absolutely.  He was able to say things along the lines of, “I imagine that what’s worrying you is money, and that your suggestion is designed to save us a few bob (a few quid), and that that’s what’s behind your suggestion.”  And they’d say, “Yes that’s about the size of it”.  And he’d be able to say, “Well the thing that really worries me about this is that in the long run this might end up costing us even more”.  And they bought it.

Phil:  Hmm.  That’s great.

Alex:  There is another kind of conversation when you have to say no, and it can also be a difficult conversation for lots of people.  I’m thinking of when you have to say no to somebody who’s work you might be responsible for monitoring, but when you’re not satisfied with something they’re doing and you’re having to say, “No it’s not what I want”, or “It’s not the way that I want it”, or “No that’s not good enough”.

Phil:  Well that sounds very linked to what we’ve just been talking about, and a very relevant topic for us to tackle next time we do a podcast.

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