In most of the cultures on this planet, it is not polite—nor is it easy—to say “no.” In fact, in most cultures, saying “no” is considered inappropriate behaviour. As a result, due to our backgrounds most of us find it very difficult to say “no” when we have to, or when we should, in business or professional situations. However, we do ourselves no justice, nor do we serve our clients well, nor do we serve those with whom we practice well, if we say “yes” to everything.

People who say “yes” and take on too much simply fail to perform to expectation. We are far better off to be selective about what we undertake, but to always perform to expectation.

Saying “No”

In a lecture I attended, Alec Mackenzie, author of the internationally acclaimed book The Time Trap, focused on the art of saying “no.” His is not the only system but it is a good one.

Mackenzie’s approach consists of five steps. The first is to listen carefully in order to understand the request that is being made of you. There is nothing worse than saying “no” to something you do not understand. Paraphrase or provide feedback if necessary, saying for example, “Let me just make sure I understand. You want me to prepare the document by Thursday at noon. Is my understanding correct?” Make sure you have it right.

The second step is to say “no” — politely, but firmly. You will note that you do this before giving any explanation. Your “no” might sound something like this: “No. Candidly, I am not able to produce the document by Thursday at noon.”

Step Three is to offer an explanation — explain why you cannot fulfil the request. Say, “I would be unable to fulfill the other obligations I’ve undertaken and also prepare that document by Thursday. I would have to renege on another promise I made, and I am unable to do that.”

The fourth step is to offer assistance or alternate solutions that will allow the person who made the request to accomplish his or her mission. In this way you will show that you are willing to assist as best you can, even though you are unable to say “yes” to the request. Say, for example, “Would it be of help to you if I looked around to see if there was anyone else available who could help you get that document done on your time frame?” Or, “Is it possible that you could manage the client’s expectations so that I could do that document by Friday instead of by Thursday?”

The fifth and final step is to politely admonish the person who made the request. (This one really threw me for a loop when I first heard it. Admonish? I mean, normally we are talking about a client, or we are talking about someone who may be superior or senior to us in the firm. “Yes,” Mackenzie says. “Admonish.”) Your intent is to give a little bit of corrective feedback that might help the person making the request avoid getting into this kind of situation with you again in future. You say something like, “Gee, I wish I had known about this when you first learned that you might need this document, because at that point in time I might have been able to schedule it in and get this done for you.” Or, “In situations where you think I may be able to help in future, let me know as soon as possible, and I’ll clear the decks and see what I can do to help.”

Those are Alec Mackenzie’s five steps for saying “no.” Given some practice, they can serve you well.

I INVITE YOUR FEEDBACK: I would be interested to know your thoughts on this or any other matter relating to law firms and their management, either in the comments section below or directly via email.