Yes, it’s OK to say “NO!”

How to prevent the over-commitment that leads to overwhelm

This article first appeared in our newsletter in 2003. Still true!

Thought balloon NO


It’s a small yet powerful word, one with big consequences. It’s a word that can improve our lives and make us more valuable to those we say it to – those we want to help in this world.

At the end of a week in which I – and the feelings I was experiencing – seemed to be on a non-stop rush from appointment to commitment to obligation to ordeal, I stopped to reflect on what was making me feel so beleaguered.

I examined my “To Do” list, and highlighted the things I really wanted to do. Almost all the highlighted items had fallen (or were they pushed?) to the bottom of the page. Activities that were important to me had, for months, languished, ignored and forgotten, beneath activities that other people wanted me to do. Ouch!

It had something to do with my reluctance to use the word “No.” A little reading and a lot of reflection showed me:

  • That NO is not a dirty word
  • How to say NO without feeling guilty
  • And why saying NO increases the value of the things we say YES to.

How does it happen?


Lean Conversations 1: Can good communication reduce waste?

Lean Principles I’m getting lean. Alas, this is not about my body. It’s something I’ll call “lean communication.” I’m not about to preach on short sentences and plain words, though that can be part of it. I’m convinced that good communication reduces waste.

In manufacturing, the concept of “lean” describes practices that use fewer resources to provide greater value to customers. Anything customers don’t value enough to pay for is considered “waste,” something to eliminate. Lean practices originated in manufacturing in the 1940s, when Taiichi Ohno introduced them at Toyota. Over the years, they’ve been adopted and adapted in many contexts, including lean startups and lean software development.

When I look at the ideas I use with my communication coaching clients, I see a lot of overlap with lean principles, particularly those set out by the Lean Enterprise Institute. I’ve paraphrased them, but you can find the original version here.

1. Establish value from the customer’s perspective

This is my top tip for communication. I never tire of sharing it because it works so well. The audience for any communication might be considered your “customers.” The more you can make your communication about them and their needs, the more likely you are to be listened to, heard and understood. Whether you’re addressing one person or 100, in conversation, in presentations, in broadcast or in writing, you can almost never go wrong if you explain your point from the perspective of your audience. You make people care about your message by answering their question, “What’s in it for me?” (WIFM) That’s the value will it have for them. When you talk about anything they don’t value – no matter how much you love it – you waste your time and theirs. (more…)

Surprise! What coaching taught me about communication

Originally posted at the International Association Of Coaching

ColleaguesVsmallFor over 30 years, I’ve been a communication professional. Educated, mentored, accredited and experienced in every form of communication, I looked like the real deal. Yet it wasn’t until I trained as a coach that I truly learned to communicate.

I was working in corporate communication when I had the disturbing realization that how people talk to each other at work has more impact than the formal programs to which I was devoting my career. Fortunately, I met a coach. Being coached gave me an appreciation for deliberate and conscious conversation. Coach training gave me the tools. It forever changed the way I talk with everyone.

I learned to look beyond the story.

In earlier days, when I talked to people, I looked for the story. For daily news, it had to inform or entertain. For organizations, it had to line up with some corporate objective. Today, whether or not I am coaching, my focus is on the person behind the story. The more I focus on the person, the more interesting our conversation becomes. My attention builds the trust that helps people feel comfortable sharing their stories.

In coaching, I learned that the story someone brings me – the “presenting problem” – is not always the real issue. Probing for clarification has been just as useful in revealing what’s really going on with colleagues, family members and acquaintances as it has for clients. (more…)

Help for the emotionally inarticulate

Many of us are poor at accurately describing our emotional state. And worse at identifying other people’s. This can be unhelpful when we’re having a emotion-laden conversation.

I think it’s because we tend to have a limited emotional vocabulary. It’s hard to talk about things we can’t name. The words exist – in English there are a few hundred emotion words. The big ones are seldom a problem: joy, sorrow, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. It’s the subtler ones that often escape us. When we seldom use them it’s not surprising they don’t spring to mind when we need them most.

Our brains are highly attuned to the sensation of our own emotions and emotional signals sent by others. But when we’re asked to name these emotional states many of us stumble. It’s like trying to describe a colourful scene when all we know are names of the primary hues – the millions of shades we perceive but can’t easily name remain unmentioned. This can be a hurdle to understanding communication dynamics and to being understood. Especially when we’re not thinking clearly.

Here’s something that may help.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik proposed a visualization of eight primary emotions and their less intense variations arranged in a “colour” wheel that illustrates the interplay of core and related emotions. Using his “Multidimensional Model of the Emotions” we can “mix” emotions to express variations and nuance.

Note: This image has been attributed to Annette DeFarrari , here

Being better able to describe our own emotions lets us interact better with others. This tool can help us stretch our emotional vocabulary to enhance self-awareness and communication. Think of it as an exercise in emotional intelligence.

I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Confronting the Thief of Time.

“Procrastination is the thief of time.” – Edward Young (1683-1765)

We all do it. But for some, the practice of procrastination – delay without good reason, can become a chronic habit.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird , tells this poignant story of the consequences of delay:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Procrastination Venn Diagram

We now know that procrastinaton isn’t a time management issue. There are powerful cognitive issues at play and our brains are not being our friends. But like any learned behaviour, we can displace it with another learned behaviour.

The irony of procrastination is that we succumb to it to feel better (in the short term) but the result is usually the opposite. Annoyance, stress and guilt quickly erode the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the distraction of the choice we make in the present moment. Procrastination simply doesn’t make us feel great. This distress seldom prevents the development of a procrastination habit.

A good place to begin

Whatever it is you need to get done – just start. Then revise and improve.
You need to give yourself permission to do less than a perfect job on the first pass. It’s considerably easier to edit, expand or criticize something than it is to wait in suspended animation with nothing in hand.
The key is to assess, realistically, the cost of delay – to you and others. There are many reasons to delay starting. But, at least for me,  the fleeting pay-off of delay seldom exceeds the cost of anxiety.

Two inspirational resources

If Google search results are any indication, I’m convinced interest in conquering the scourge of procrastination ranks with achieving world peace. But among the overwhelming options here are two resources that I’ve found enaging and useful:

Dr. Timothy Pychyl has spent his career exploring procrastination. He makes his research accessible to those who need practical guidance through his blogging at Psychology Today and now, in an excellent short ebook called The Procrastinators Digest. If you want to understand and counter procrastination tendencies I think it’s the best $2.99 you could ever spend.

Dr. Piers Steel conducted a meta-survey of formal academic publications that analysed over 800 scholarly papers on procrastination. This effort, along with his own research, has provided the insight he shares in his new book The Procrastination Equation (available December 28, 2010)

In it Steel debunks long-standing theories (and myths) regarding procrastination and proposes a new explanation that provides guidance towards overcoming our tendencies to delay.  Based on previews and testimonials alone, this is not to be missed if procrastination is on your mind.

If you’re keen to see where you rank in Steel’s procrastination continuum and are willing to further his research you can take his survey.

What’s the flip side? How to create another point of view when you’re stumped.

We all like to think we’re instinctively creative thinkers but we’re not. Overcoming the constraints our existing mental maps impose and the unconscious pattern-matching that filters our senses and thoughts makes the process of thinking of and assessing new ideas hard cognitive work.

So we avoid or are deflected from doing it. When it comes to creative thinking our brains often are not our best allies.

When you feel you’re stuck in a rut, succumbing to groupthink or simply at an impasse with respect to generating options try looking at the flip side.

This is a straightforward technique called “reversal”. Consciously thinking about the opposite position or situation – however contrived – can be a powerful catalyst for new ideas and insight. If you’re trying to change: How can you guarantee the status quo? If you’re trying to improve: What can be done to make things worse?

Sounds too easy? Here are two short videos (~5 minutes total) that drive the point home and provide visual and emotional hooks to hang the idea on.

The first is an award-winning video from UK publishers Dorling Kindersley called the Future of Publishing. It addresses the view that physical books will become less relevant in a digital world populated by a cynical new generation of digital natives. In a stunning (and literal) reversal of the opening argument we may think otherwise (Be sure to watch past the midpoint!)

The second offering comes from Derek Sivers in a presentation made at TED India. He introduces thought-provoking examples from his travels that illustrate viable options exist as opposites to aspects of the world we take for granted in urban western society. His advice: ask the question “Could the opposite be true?”

So the next time you feel blocked in your thinking, whether alone or in a group, try asking: Could the opposite be true? Even if the answer isn’t useful the process certainly will be.