How to say no

This is, in part, a public apology to Martijn. I’m sharing it in the hope that the lessons I learned might spare you from some potential humiliation and suffering.

It started with a simple request. Martijn is a student in the Netherlands, and he sent me a message on LinkedIn.

“Currently am I writing a paper about the effect of Working Out Loud on collaborative working and sharing in organizations. If it's possible I really want to ask you a few questions about it…every answer is helpful and we are very grateful for your help and sharing your knowledge with us!”

“What a nice note!” I thought, and replied right away that I would be happy to help him.

“Thanks for your quick and enthusiastic answer! I just sent you the email with our questions.”

That was in March. Then, I had a few business trips, and took a week off with the kids for Spring Break. 

In late April he sent me a gentle reminder. “Do you still have time?” At this point, I was embarrassed. I was also in the middle of a project. I looked again at his questions and figured it would take me an hour to answer them. Not so long that I couldn’t find the time, but long enough that I didn’t do it right away.

More time passed. Week after week, I thought about Martijn and my failure to do what I said. Finally, in June, my mounting guilt drove me to write him an apology and ask if my answers would still be useful. In a gracious reply, he told me they already completed the paper. I felt terrible.

Right around that time, I came across this post from Seth Godin from 2009 titled “Saying No”:

“You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

It made me realize that, like the now-ubiquitous “Yes, and…” exercise, my saying “no” could feel different and lead to better outcomes if I reframed it slightly. Instead of viewing “no” as a rejection of the other person, it could be an opportunity to offer something else, including attention, appreciation, and alternatives. Offering any of those to Martijn would have been better than my ill-thought-out “yes" that only led to disappointment and bad feelings on both sides. 

Next time you receive a request from someone, honor yourself and them by asking these three questions. 

How much effort will this require?

When will I do it?

What else could I do with that time instead?

Take a moment to really think it through before responding, and you’ll both be better off. “No, and…” is always better than “Yes, but I don’t really mean it.”

No and....png

“You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world that hate peaches.”

Dita Von Teese quote

Dita Von Teese quote

That’s a tweet from 2010 from a modern burlesque dancer, Dita Von Teese. And it has a lot to do with how you work out loud.

One of the five elements of working out loud is generosity. You frame your own experience - what you’re doing, learning, etc. - as contributions that might deepen your relationships with other people.

But what if some people don’t want your contributions? What if they ignore you or don’t like what you have to offer?

Here are three things you should do.

1. Reflect & learn

You can’t control whether or how people respond, but you can control your own reaction. The most useful thing to do when someone doesn't respond the way you'd like is to reflect on your contribution and how you offered it to see if you can learn something.

Did you practice empathy? Put yourself in the other person’s position and think how they might react to your gift.

Did you truly frame it as a contribution? It’s easy for a genuine gift to be misinterpreted as a thinly-veiled manipulation.

Did you offer too much too soon? Taking the effort to be familiar with the other person’s work ahead of time can help ensure your contribution is something they’ll value.

To refine the way you offer gifts, there’s plenty of advice on how to approach people and how to ask for help.

2. Maintain perspective

Of course, you can make up all sorts of reasons why someone didn’t respond to you. But the most likely reason is that they’re simply busy.

Rather than invent a negative story, it’s better to just assume the best of people and try again. Don’t badger them - Did you get my last email? Instead, use what you learned from your reflection and offer another gift in the future.

If they still don’t respond, that’s okay. As Seth Godin says, “It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it.”

After all, not everybody likes peaches.

3. Keep shipping

Here’s the most important part: keep shipping. Keep refining your craft, making contributions, and deepening relationships with people who share your interests and concerns.

For example, on a given month, almost 10,000 people visit my blog. But when I offered people the chance to read drafts of the book, about 150 people said yes and about 50 responded with detailed comments.

Here’s what went through my head:

Maybe the people don’t care about what I’m doing.

Maybe most of the people who read the book hated it.

Maybe those who said they liked it were just being nice.


Maybe. What’s most likely is that people are busy. I should be grateful that anyone volunteered their time to read unfinished work. For 50 people to go through the trouble of documenting their feedback, sometimes providing hundreds of comments, is incredible. Why make up a negative story when a positive one also fits the facts?

When you’re framing your own experience as a contribution, all you can do is offer it with genuine empathy, know that it’s not for everyone, and keep trying to get better. Peach lovers around the world will be glad you did.



p.s. As the first post of 2015, I’d be remiss if I didn’t wish you all a Happy New Year! If you still haven’t decided on a resolution, here are two I found useful for myself: one for your career and one for life.