How to Say No Gracefully: 5 Principles

by Nov 18, 20160 comments

One of the ongoing challenges in any kind of leadership is to figure out how to say no gracefully to people, especially when they are trying to solve problems that they see. It can be difficult to strike the right balance between the extremes of (1) shutting someone down so that they feel personally dejected, and (2) failing to say no clearly enough to be understood.

While this is a work in progress, here are some of the principles that I have found most helpful.

Figure out the Intent

Before saying no, work very hard to figure out why someone is making a request. The specific proposal you receive may not work, but, if you can figure out the reason someone is asking you to do something, you can often come up with a better solution together.

And once you figure out the intent, be sure to affirm it explicitly.

Defer the Request to the Future

If you are concerned about the relative importance of a proposal, it is often helpful to ask the person to approach you again about it in a month or so. In the intervening month, (1) the person may find a different solution, (2) the person may discover that his concern is not that important, or (3) you may come around to seeing the importance of what the person asked.

Connect the Person to Someone Else

It is a mistake to believe that someone’s idea should be rejected simply because you cannot personally execute it—and, sometimes, such an attitude betrays an arrogant Messiah Complex in our hearts. Instead, we should work to connect the person with the idea with someone who who has more resources, or whose interests/role/job description more naturally aligns with the request.

If you don’t, you rob three groups people: (1) you rob your organization of a possible solution to a problem that at least one person is experiencing; (2) you rob the person making the request of their dignity to offer a solution now, as well as their initiative to offer more solutions in the future; and (3) you rob the “someone else” of the blessing of working on something that they care about and are equipped to do.

Assign Additional Homework

Other times, the best course is to clearly express your concerns about the request, and then ask the person making the request to spend time thinking through those concerns to bring you back a better solution. In this way, you avoid bottle-necking the progress of the solution, and you give the person the opportunity to grow by further refining their ideas.

Honor the Person

Remember the words of the Apostle Peter: “Honor everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17). Strive to honor the person making a request, even when you cannot approve the request. Remember that every person has dignity in the image of God, and every person has gifts that you do not for serving the King.

Leadership often demands that we say no, but leadership always demands that we honor those whom God has graciously called us to lead.

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