Career advice

The Smartest People Use a Simple Model and These 6 Phrases to Say ‘No' When They Need to, Says CEO—Here's How It Works

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Asking for what you want at work is a crucial skill for career growth. But it's just as important to express what you don't want.

While "no" is a loaded word, it protects your time, energy and focus. Most people sense they need to say it more often, but tense up at the thought of delivering it. Typically, they realize they should have said no only after they failed to do so.

In our jumpy work world filled with hallucinated urgency, we often respond with what I call a "flash response" — an immediate answer to a yes or no request, and is fueled by reflex, impulse and distraction.

That's because most of us don't have a framework to support us in our choice. Luckily, through years of researching the smartest and most productive employees, I came up with the Hourglass method — a step-by-step guide for consciously deciding when to say no.

Saying 'no': How to use the Hourglass method

At the center of every real hourglass is a narrow neck that regulates the flow of sand.

But in our Hourglass, instead of funneling sand, we are funneling decisions, slowing them down momentarily and taking a strategic pause in the neck of the glass to allow proper consideration before we respond.

The Hourglass Model
Juliet Funt, author of "A Minute to Think"
The Hourglass Model

Here's how it works:

If you get a request through an email, text or someone popping their head in your office, ask for a little time and turn to the Hourglass.

At the top of the Hourglass, begin by noting the flash response you initially had to the request: Yes or no? Write down whatever you felt like saying in the moment.

Next is the critical consideration phase, in which you pause to examine three things: Your motives, your history, and your future.

Ask yourself if you are enthusiastically accepting an opportunity you want or, conversely, people-pleasing, operating on fear or kissing up. If you're seeking the feeling of being needed, liked or gaining visibility —own that truth.

Jot down a few private thoughts about your motives, whether negative or positive.

Consider next your recent history of similar yes or no choices. Think about if you've volunteered too much in the past and felt a pinch of resentment. On the flip side, look for where you may have said no to opportunities that left you curious and hankering for involvement. Let your past experiences play into the choice before you.

The last step before responding is to consider the future. Project whether your yes or no benefits or harms you or your team days from now, weeks from now, or even longer. How will your response protect your time and focus? How will it impact results? Will it challenge or support your relationships and influence?

If you are facing a complex no, you'll have to gather more information to complete this phase.

At the base of the Hourglass, it's time to make your decision and note your considered response. Make a choice, write it down, then deliver it with the confidence bred by the intentionality you've shown. (This entire process can shorten to an automatic moment or two once it has become familiar.)

Example phrases to help you say no

The specific words used to reject a request can be excruciatingly hard to come up with. It's easy to come off as too blunt, to get long-winded with excuses, or to sound unsure even as we're trying to be confident.

In simple situations, you'll benefit from the collection of phrases below that can adapt to fit your style. With a little practice, you'll discover which ones come most naturally and you'll always feel prepared.

  1. "May I take a day to get back to you?"
    Buy yourself time to work the Hourglass. When the interpersonal contact is broken, the intellect engages, better quipping you to make rational decisions.
  2. "I can do it for you this time, but I can't do it for you every time.
    Ease a demanding person back slowly from their expectations, and set up a future no.
  3. "It does not [or will not] work for me to ... "
    This clause is a marvelous neutral beginning to any no. Be cautious of harshness in your tone.
  4. "I can't, but here's another option for you."
    Share an alternative or suggestion in place of you being able to help.
  5. "It's not good for me now, but let's look ahead in our calendars."
    Be careful not to use a delay to avoid a necessary no. Of course, if timing is really the issue, then push the commitment back.
  6. "Sorry, no."
    Yes, this is a complete sentence. Get it out and say nothing more.

The beauty of the Hourglass is how it uses the pause to put on the brakes and give you the time to be sure, to avoid regret, and to walk the tightropes of your work relationships with grace.

Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO of a boutique efficiency firm, Juliet Funt Group, and the author of "A Minute to Think." She is an evangelist for freeing the potential of companies by unburdening their talent from busywork. Juliet has worked with several large companies, including Spotify, Abbott, Costco, Pepsi, Nike, Wells Fargo, Sephora, Sysco and ESPN. Follow her on Twitter @thejulietfunt.

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