Friday, July 21, 2017

Leadership Lesson Series: Yes, Say No

"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.' Whatever is more than these is of the evil one." Matthew 5:37 WEB

“No.” It is one of the first words we learn as toddlers. Yet it becomes a word we have a hard time using, especially as leaders. As leaders it is our instinct to want to say yes. We desire to motivate and inspire people and we feel that saying no is contrary to that goal. Yet the truth is often other than what we instinctually feel.

A leader is by definition someone who guides or directs to a certain goal or direction. They are tasked with making one objective prominent above all others. By nature a leader says yes to one thing and no to all others. Yet all leaders, new and experienced, struggle with saying no at times. It is essential to know how to say no.

You may think it rude or unpleasant to say no. But often this response has the follower’s best interest at heart. The greatest leader in all of human history said no many times. The key that made Jesus so good is that he knew how to say no in a manner appropriate for the situation. It is what enabled him to accomplish the greatest objective any leader has ever faced, the salvation of an entire race!

A no response must be situationally fitting. The word no may not even be used. Learning to respond effectively takes experience. When it doubt, a great response is one that buys you more time to consider a yes or no answer such as, “let me think about it,” “that might work, I will get back to you,” “let’s explore that idea,” or simply, “maybe.” This gives you more opportunity to weigh the options and seek guidance if necessary. Sometimes, exploring the idea on the spot by discussing it with the group will show its merit or defects. This strategy may keep you from having to say no in front of the whole group because the error of the idea becomes self-evident. It may even prove to have more quality than you as the leader originally anticipated.

No, does not have to be the final answer. If you begin by saying no, then later realize the idea would be allowable, it is ok to change your mind. As leaders we feel an extra strong drive to appear consistent. This means we detest changing our minds or admitting error for fear of appearing inconsistent. But a great leader is one who can admit their error or change their mind when the situation truly warrants. Admitting an error will prove to your followers you are humble and not above reproach. It will earn their respect and make you a better leader. This lets them know your power hasn’t gone to your head. Changing your mind when you see all the facts more clearly has the same effect. This only becomes negative when it happens to frequently!

As stated above, no has numerous forms. Jesus said no in many different ways. Many examples involve setting boundaries. This is often the hardest type of no for new leaders. They desire to please everyone. Jesus set boundaries on work by taking needed personal time (Mark 1:35); he set boundaries on his commitments by acknowledging he could not be in two places at once (Mark 1:38); he prioritized pleasing God (John 5:44); he set boundaries on inappropriate behavior (Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 16:23, Matthew 21:23-27, 22:15-22, Luke 23:8-9).

Most of the instances where Jesus says no are due to one fundamental reason, if he said yes, it would detract from his mission. He said no to Satan worship (Matt. 4:1-11); no to immediately destroying those that rejected him (Luke 9:54-56); no to becoming an earthly king (John 6:15). It is a leader’s most fundamental job to keep the group focused on the primary objective. That is the chief reason to have a leader and what made Jesus such a good one. Therefore, someone who is uncomfortable saying no at times should avoid leadership. It should also be pointed out that saying no to one thing, enables the leader and the group to say yes to another. Ultimately, saying no is about focusing, not about rejecting. Communicating focus rather than rejection requires skill. That is why there are so many ways to say no.

There are perhaps hundreds of ways at your disposal. To avoid causing a feeling of rejection, target your no answer at the idea rather than the person. “I appreciate your input, but that idea isn’t likely to work.” Admit the value of the idea but postpone it, “That is a great idea; maybe we could try that next time.” Provide a logical reason why it is not the best idea, “Your idea is good, but I/we believe this idea will work better due to the time constraints.” Reiterate the priority, “We are trying to accomplish ____ so let’s focus on that.”

Sometimes the word no may be just as problematic as the word yes. In a situation where yes is inappropriate and no will likely escalate the situation what should a leader do? One great option is to redirect. Rather than saying no to the desired idea, offer an alternative, preferably equally or more attractive than the first. This technique can be very effective with children. The trick is to refocus from the negative, you/we can’t to the positive, you/we can. You must be careful not to let this become a bribe though. Offering double of something later that can’t be had now is a bribe not redirection.

Redirection can be effective in situations with older groups too, especially when a suggestion is too extravagant. For example, when brainstorming a new fundraising idea, instead of squashing an unattainable proposal, suggest a similar but more modest one. Someone suggests, “Let’s have a raffle for a new car.” The leader says, “A raffle is a great idea, but not everyone needs a new car, lets raffle tickets to Disney World instead.”

It is especially important to say no when people are at risk of harm. In these situations, a simple no is best. For example, during an emergency time is of the essence. If a fire breaks out and someone says, “run for your life,” a leader would say, “No! Everyone walk calmly to the emergency exits. Leave everything else behind.” This keeps everyone from panicking and clogging the exits putting people in greater danger. Context is key in how you say no.

The biggest key to saying no is to do so with tact, whenever possible. A little respect goes a long way. Remember your manners and people will be much more accepting. Saying, “no thank you,” or “not this time,” reduces the chance that people will take it personally. A little kindness with your no goes a long way, you know?

Written by David F. Garner
Photo Credit  Bruno Glätsch via