This blog is part of a series, Leading From the Middle. This series teaches you how to improve the system and show the Man that Millennials know how to get stuff done. Gain new perspectives on leadership, plot the course, and make an impact, even if your title equates to something along the lines of “assistant to the assistant.” Be forewarned — if you take on Leading From the Middle, there’s no such thing as, “above my paygrade.” Written by a Millennial, for Millennials, but in no way, shape, or form limited to Millennials.
Imagine a world in which “no” is a distant, bad memory. One where you had the power to influence those around you so “no” is replaced by “yes.”
This isn’t about being entitled or any of the other words that are often thrown around to describe Millennials. This is about knowing how to present your case in the most effective way possible. When you start to hear “yes” as opposed to “no,” you begin to unlock what is possible. You start to realize the impact you’re capable of, have the job you dreamed of, live in the location you desired, make the moolah to give you financial freedom, have the…really, whatever you wanted.
I’m here to tell you it’s possible, with practice. It has nothing to do with your age, rank, beauty, or any other category with which you identify.
In this post, we’ll explore the context of the word, “No,” and ways to make requests that will have your boss saying, “Yes,” time and time again.
First, what’s wrong with “No?”
Nothing! “No” still serves an important purpose. “No” is great and can often be a gift if you are headed down the wrong path and don’t realize it. Many prominent leaders who have gone before us tout the importance of getting super effective with the use of “No,” so it would only make sense if you hear it from time to time.
“No” is great because it helps you stay intentional by getting non-value add work off your plate. At The Clearing, we call this type of work MUDA. MUDA is a Japanese word that means “futility, uselessness, and wastefulness.” Eliminating MUDA helps prevent bad ideas from getting off the ground and it helps maintain boundaries.
“No” is crucial if you are trying to bring workability to a system. (Side note — when a circumstance is workable it means it is capable of being operated effectively. For instance, it’s workable when you find yourself saying, “Hey, that actually worked! We’re an awesome team! Pop some bottles!” If you find yourself saying, “We got it done, but we had to go through Hell and back,” workability is not present.)
On the flip side, have you ever heard “No” and it comes across as arbitrary? You’re left with an experience ranging from “How could I have missed that—I’m an idiot,” to “someone is an idiot, but I’m not sure who,” to “clearly, not all dinosaurs are extinct.”
So, what gives?
This is something many people don’t realize—there are two types of “No.” There are those disguised as reasons (or excuses) for not wanting to do something and those that are powerful (in this context, a powerful “No” is one that reduces MUDA – it maintains your integrity and your authenticity in a matter).
To make matters more muddy, they are spelled the same, sound the same, and often used in the same way, despite having two separate meanings. The yutes have a hard time enough with “their, there, and they’re” and “your and you’re,” so this is bound to confuse them.
To tell the difference between the two, skip the definition. When it comes to “No,” It’s the context that matters. It’s not the fact that you said, “No.” It’s why you said, “No,” that counts. Even if you never actually articulate the why in an actual conversation. Hence the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words.”
A perfect example of the weak “No” is the classic, “No, because I said so!” that parents far and wide toss around like candy from a float at a Memorial Day parade. It’s hard to argue against and leaves the child feeling unfulfilled.
It also doesn’t authentically communicate the why behind the “No.” The reality is, mom or dad said, “No,” not because he or she said so; it’s because the toy is too expensive or some other reason deemed too cumbersome to communicate in the moment. That’s why this type of “No” loses its potency as the child gets older and gains more autonomy.
Powerful “No’s” are different. They too come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are just a straightforward, “No.” Other times they are a “No, and here’s why…” When you hear one, you know it. It makes sense. You get it. The rebuttals, which you rehearsed leading up to your conversation suddenly lose their power, because the “no” you just heard shifted the entire context of the conversation.
Here’s an example of a powerful “No.” I recently listened to a podcast featuring the conflict transformation mediator, John Paul Lederach. He told a moving story about a paramilitary group coming to enforce its will on a small jungle village in Colombia, and how one man from that village stood up and said, “No, I will not,” despite the threat of execution, despite the impending destruction that could befall his village, despite all the evidence that regardless of what the villagers said or did the paramilitaries would wreak havoc. He still said, “No.” The trajectory of the conflict in that Colombian jungle was altered forever.
Ok, got it, there are two types of “No.” How does that lead to getting people to say, “yes?”
Understanding why people say “No” dramatically increases your chances of hearing a “Yes.”
Here’s why. When you hear a weak “No,” you probably presented your request in an ineffective way. Your request was perceived to be a burden from the other person’s perspective.
For example, how successful would you be if you walked into your boss’s office and said, “I’d like to have more vacation time.” Some of you might luck out, however many of you would probably find that your boss simply laughs and says, “No!” The way in which the request is positioned immediately gets them thinking about all of the additional work they’d have to take on, the political favoritism it would demonstrate, and the revenue lost, all in service of making sure you got a few more days on the beach.
It’s especially confusing when your colleague, the shining star of the office, walks into the boss’s office, makes practically the same request, and walks out with another 40 hours!
How Can I Get Ahead of The Shining Star? Slip Something in his Coffee?
You could, but I won’t condone that. Another way is to get more effective at making requests.
When someone says “No,” they aren’t saying “No” to you, they’re saying “No” to your request. Just like parents everywhere, they aren’t saying “No” for the heck of it. They’re saying “no” because your request set off several red flags and added a series of complex headaches to their day from which they will likely never recover.
Unlike conversations that end with weak “No’s,” effective requests end with, “Yes” (and sometimes more). The shining star of the office probably followed a simple structure like the one below.
There are three parts (plus one) to making an effective request:
- Make sure you are having the same conversation — Often, we think we are communicating, but we really aren’t. Phones are buzzing, emails are being checked, clocks are being watched, etc. Those who are masterful at making effective requests have the other participant’s full attention, and likewise give theirs fully. Sometimes you have to let people settle for a couple minutes in order to shift their focus, a process known as, “letting someone arrive.”
- Speak to the priorities/concerns/considerations of the person of whom you are making the request — Effective requests are not about advancing your own agenda. They are about advancing the agenda of the person to whom you are making the request. For a moment, see the world from their perspective. It is important to note that this part of the conversation may require some inquiry beforehand or even in the conversation itself. It’s okay to ask, “What’s important to you?”
- Be clear, concise, and direct with the request — After you have a solid understanding of your conversational counterpart’s world, make the request in as few words as you can, so that when they hear your request they immediately see the opportunity in their world. If you find yourself rambling, take a pause and ask the other person, “Am I making sense?”
The final step is one for those who want to sleep more soundly at night:
- Let it go—for now — Once you make the request, let go of any attachment to getting a “Yes.” Even if you do get a “No,” you can rest easy knowing if you authentically got in the other person’s world – then your conversation made a difference one way or the other. For the persistent Millennial, don’t worry, the “No” was just to your request at that particular moment. Try again tomorrow.
It takes time to become masterful at making effective requests. However, with a little practice, you can be someone others point to and say, “Look at them, they get whatever they ask for!” And if any of you figure out how to effectively ask for more vacation time, let me know.