Written by For new product folk

How to say ‘no’ nicely

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On my first day as a real PM, my boss told me that “80% of the job is saying no”. I don’t think it’s too far off the mark, and saying ‘no’ to people is definitely one of the harder parts of the job.

People from around the business come to you because they need something doing. It might be marketing wanting to change some copy on the homepage, sales asking for a new feature, or someone on C-level floating an idea you should look into.

PMs end up saying ‘no’ a lot.

It’s hard because it feels like you’re being negative. Saying ‘no’ can feel like you’re trying to do less work. You wonder if people start to distrust you, or think you’re ineffective and just work around you. It can feel like you’re someone that can’t get things done.

And it grows over time; the more you say ‘no’ to an idea, a person, or a department, the closer you come to giving in and just doing the thing.

You have to say “no”, though. As a PM you will be judged on the impact you have on the business, not on how much you agree to build. If you commit to too much, your focus (and therefore impact) will be diluted.

Building things to get people off your back is like heroin; you get a short-term kick, but if you’re building the wrong things the demands will just come back, stronger.

So the trick is to decide what the most important things to work on are, and say ‘no’ to the other things. Here are some ways that make both saying and hearing ‘no’ a bit easier.

1 / Actively listen, with an open mind: It’s amazing how often people just want to feel heard. It’s true in customer call centers, A&E waiting rooms, and it’s definitely true in most companies. If you take the time to genuinely understand the person’s idea and where they’re coming from, you’ll be more likely to reach a conclusion together, and the other person will be more understanding of that conclusion. 

It’s easy to quickly think “this is a terrible idea”, but it will be obvious once you’ve jumped there. One of my favourite principles to refer to is that “no one is wrong, they just have access to different data”. If your colleague thinks an idea is good, at the very least you should hear them out. This makes any ‘no’ that you give them much, much more palatable.

If you say “I totally understand where you’re coming from, and why you want this done”, it goes a very long way to getting people on-side.

2 / Look for a reason to say ‘yes’: Often it can feel like you need to provide an explanation of why you can’t do something. As soon as you can, flip that conversation on it’s head – it doesn’t actually matter how hard or costly something is to do, all that matters is how much benefit you get for the cost.

From there you’ll be able to better understand how useful the thing would be, and your colleague will be exposed to your thought process.

3 / Differentiate between ‘no’ and ‘not now’: When people come to you with ideas or requests, they’re often wanting you to do something immediately. And most of the time it’s not going to be something you’re able or willing to address immediately. 

I find that mentally separating this into three buckets helps:

  • Ideas that won’t add value in the way that you want No
  • Ideas that add value, but aren’t high leverage Not now
  • Ideas that add value, and are high leverage Yes now

Be honest with people about where their request sits. If you don’t think the idea will add value, say that. If you say “sure, it’s in the backlog, we’ll get to it”, over time people will learn to distrust you.

Explain why bad ideas are bad ideas. People value honesty, and deserve it. It’s like a breakup vs. ghosting someone – it’s harder for a very short period, but then completely clear after that.

4 / Match their enthusiasm: If someone is excited, angry, or scared, the worst thing you can do is meet them with disinterest. It reeks of apathy, and the other person will think the ‘no’ comes from you not caring as much as you should.

A muted response to an impassioned plea will simply heighten emotions.

Jordan Belfort (of Wolf Of Wall Street fame) shares in his book that his son was livid at a football teammate that wouldn’t pass to him. If he sat down and said “don’t let him get to you”, his son would have been even more angry.

Instead he said “what the hell, let’s get him chucked off the team!”. His son agreed and they planned to call the coach. Eventually, they simmered down together, to the point where they realised they didn’t really want to get the other kid kicked off the team, and decided they should probably do nothing. 

In sales, this is called pacing and leading. In PMing, it’s called showing that you’re a human being, and it makes saying ‘no’ a lot easier.

5 / Explain how your decision-making works: Your objective should be to get the best ideas from people, which means making sure the best ideas get through. Explain to people how you make decisions, your success criteria, metrics, etc. In doing this you’ll not only make a ‘no’ easier to take, but create more opportunity for ‘yes’ in future.

If you can teach people how to better pitch ideas, you’ll have a much more successful and enjoyable relationship.

Last modified: March 6, 2020