ATD Blog

Improve Communication Skills With a Positive “No”

Monday, June 3, 2013

Last week I started a series on de-cluttering your communications habits to create more effective results. In this post I will share tips to improve your communication skills by learning to decline more powerfully and positively. For a lot of people, saying “no” is really hard. For others, saying “no” gracefully seems next to impossible—yet both situations have disastrous implications.

“No” is a leadership word. To be effective in any type of leadership role, we must master the art of the decline. More importantly, the ability to decline with grace has the multi-pronged benefit of reducing your to-do list while preserving relationships and building trust with one other.

So why is it so hard? From an early age experience taught us that “yes” made people happier while “no” might very well land us in our room without dessert. At work, we often are asked to do things in a rhetorical manner … as if no isn’t an option. And when we do say “no” we may experience what we perceive as negative consequences. So how can we say “no” in a way that yields truly positive results?

Start by understanding that every time you say “yes” to something, you are saying “no” to something else. “Yes, I will stay late and finish the report,” often means, “No, I cannot get home in time to make a healthy meal, so I will have to serve pizza.” Taking the time to think through what your “yes” and “no” really mean will help you to prioritize what is important and to learn when it is optimal to say “no.” It’s not in anyone’s best interest for you to sacrifice your health and home life for work.


Clarifying the request often is a great way to create a win-win situation wherein you can say “no” to the actual request and help the requestor meet his needs at the same time.

Clarifying the request often is a great way to create a win-win situation wherein you can say “no” to the actual request and help the requestor meet his needs at the same time. For example, your boss might ask you to stay late to meet a deadline the following day. Discovering the details can help you to plan your decline. I encourage my clients to think about the end game and consider what you can say “yes” to. Tell the requestor what you can do instead of what you can’t do: “I can have the report to you by 10 a.m. tomorrow; however, I cannot stay past 5:30 tonight.”


Negotiating priorities is another strategy for improving communication when you deliver a decline. When we clarify the implications of a request and engage in dialogue about priorities, the requestor often will modify the request or change the circumstances. This is especially true in the area of managing workloads. For example: “I would like to be able to help with your request. Would you prefer I set aside the other work I have? It may push out other deadlines; however, it would free me up to work on this new project.”

Of course we all have known people who just don’t seem to accept “no,” or we have been in situations where a flat out “no” was the only appropriate response. It is important to handle your decline with respect, clarity, firmness, and friendliness. Mae West makes one of the truest statements about improving communication skills, and it is never more important to remember than when we are saying “no.” “It isn't what you do, but how you do it. It isn't what you say, but how you say it, and how you look when you do it and say it.” If you have to say “no,” chose your words, tone of voice, and facial expression carefully. Declining a request to work late could go as follows: “I am not available to work late this evening. I know that report is important, so what can I do to help between now and 5 o’clock?”

There are a multitude of techniques for creating powerful and positive declines. Underlying all of them is clarity around what you value and how you demonstrate respect for the requestor. For more information on what to say and how to say it, visit Join us next week to learn how individual style can get in the way of clear communication, and how to improve communication skills by tuning out the noise on three common style-related challenges.

To learn how to improve interpersonal communication skills by tuning out the noise, check out the last article in this blog series.

About the Author

Kimberly Gerber is the founder and CEO of Excelerate, a communication training and coaching firm that offers interactive workshops, executive coaching, group coaching, mediation, conflict resolution, and laser coaching to focus on specific issues. For the past two decades, Gerber’s focused approach to communication strategies has successfully led Fortune 500 companies such as Starbucks and Fleetwood Enterprises toward real results. Gerber also brings the power of effective communication to podiums across the country as a motivating and empowering public speaker. Gerber holds a B.A. in Marketing and Public Communications from SUNY Buffalo. Committed to lifelong learning, she’s completed graduate studies at San Diego State University; is a graduate of Newfield, an ICF-certified executive coaching program; and has earned mediation certification from the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Thanks kimberly for the great insight. I would like to share the post at
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.