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.”