Start Saying No with 1 Simple Trick

Saying no isn’t easy – just thinking about it might be enough to tie you up in knots. 

It’s not a lack of knowledge. We all know that saying no can be liberating, freeing us to focus on what matters. It’s that when we’re confronted with the choice to say yes or no, we can feel like a deer in the headlights – and we blurt out “yes” before we’ve even had time to think. We know those moments will come often on the entrepreneurial road, but we’re taking an “I’ll deal with that when it comes up” mentality. Well, I’d suggest, if you have not adequately prepared to deal with those moments, you’re more likely to compromise on your goals and strategic direction. 

In a previous article, I explored the most common barriers to great strategy. One of those barriers? Saying “yes” to everything and failing to prioritize. To learn more, read the full article: 5 Barriers to Great Strategy. This article is about giving you the tools and self-awareness to start saying “no.” 

First, why does saying no make us feel so uncomfortable? It’s because we (humans) are hard-wired for human connection. As entrepreneurs, when we put ourselves out there for the first time, the last thing we want is to disappoint anyone or turn people away. 

What can we do to better prepare for these decision moments?

Here’s the critical reframe: by saying yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. What could you be aiming for?

First, we need to give ourselves permission to pause, reflect, weigh our options, and see the trade-offs. Second, we need to create short-cuts to maximize our critical thinking processes in that pause moment, making some choices more automatic.

Let’s look at an example: pricing decisions. 

New entrepreneurs often get questions about their prices. That’s normal. It’s not you. It’s actually other people. Other people who may or may not be your target customer. They may ask you to change your prices or even do things for free for them. This is, of course, an important moment to weigh the trade-offs of saying yes and no. 

One simple way? Create awareness by asking yourself questions: 

  • What financial impact will this have on my business? 
  • How is this consistent or inconsistent with my strategy? 

Here’s my favorite decision framing question: what would have to be true for me to say YES to this request? To take that a step further: establish “Yes Criteria.” “Yes Criteria” serve as “tests” that will help you decide if a request will be worthwhile. Here’s how: identify 1-3 specific tests that have to be met for you to say yes. If those tests are not met, you might be more inclined to say no. 

Critically, if you’re just answering this question on the fly when a request to bend your rules comes up, you’ll be unprepared and are more likely to compromise. So, this is something to think about ahead of time to ensure you get the outcome you want. 

Here’s an example from one of my previous clients. She makes custom apparel and accessories and had orders coming in constantly, including some requests for free product or for trades. She needed a way to easily prioritize requests that would grow her business. Here’s what she identified. 

“In order for me to say yes to a request it has to: 

  1. Challenge me, creatively 
  2. Be profitable. 
  3. Grow my brand.”

With just a quick check of her Yes Criteria against each new customer request, she can now more easily prioritize and make decisions in the moment. Better yet, over time, this becomes more automatic. 

A few key points on this example: 

First, to help you reframe your choices quickly, keep your criteria simple. Don’t overthink them. Keep them sticky. Make sure they sync up with your strategy (Don’t have a strategy? Let’s talk). 

Second, you might not need all of your Yes Criteria to be met. Think of them as being on opposing ends of a triangle with tension between them. Does this request over-index on 2 of 3 dimensions? Great, that might be enough for you. These are not meant to be hard and fast rules. The important thing is to pause and make it easy for yourself to work through these decisions, so that in the moment you have some anchor points. 

Third, I’ve seen some clients find benefit in having one set of “Yes Criteria” for any and all requests. Others will have one list for special requests and another list for requests for freebies. Adapt these ideas to make them meaningful for you. 

Now, it’s your turn. What has to be true for you to say yes?

Starting and growing a business is not a straightforward and linear process. It can feel messy. It zigs and zags. It starts and stops. It can feel frustrating even for the most seasoned business owners. And, that’s ok. It’s also an exciting challenge. It’s going to stretch you. You’re going to learn a lot – not just about business, but about yourself. And, that’s why it’s worth it.

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