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WORKING STRATEGIES, A COLUMN BY AMY LINDGREN

Exercise the power of saying no

Friday, January 11, 2013 - 12:01 am

Readers of parenting magazines and self-help books are familiar with today's topic, which is learning how to say “no.” As in, “no” to toddlers who want one more dessert, teenagers who want a later curfew and anyone whose lack of boundaries threatens to harm us. For being such a little word, it's an amazingly difficult thing to actually say.

“No” is just as challenging when it comes to jobs and career issues. How do you turn down a boss' request or let go of a job offer? Should you even contemplate that option when the outcome could be unemployment?

Maybe not, although I would argue that a few “nos” sprinkled throughout your work life can produce an amazing result. But be warned: “Nos” are like salt. A little bit can enhance any meal; too much will ruin the dinner. You don't want to be the automatic “no-sayer,” as that will eventually lead to fewer offers.

To start, here are some of the circumstances when saying “no” might present itself as an option in your work life:

•A promotion that you're not sure you want

•A work assignment that you feel is sure to fail, that will distract from your career goals, or that will impinge on your home life

•A job offer that doesn't feel right, for any reason

•A business opportunity that makes you uneasy

•A career path that someone else (often a parent) thinks is the right choice

You could probably fill in more circumstances where “no” might be a logical answer. Indeed, most of us could make a list just by reviewing our own careers and the “nos” we should have said, but didn't. That's one reason hindsight is supposed to be such a good teacher.

Ah, hindsight. If only we knew then what we know now, as the lament goes. The thing is, when I review my own list of unuttered “nos,” I often discover that I actually did know the right answer – I was just too afraid, or hopeful or uncertain to say it. It was rarely faulty logic that led me down the garden path, but my failure to listen to logic.

In my defense, I have to say that the same failure to take the logical course has also led to some of my most rewarding successes – a reinforcement for a faulty process that's likely to lead to more mistakes in the future.

Luckily, my failure to learn from the past doesn't mean I can't impart wisdom to others. Maybe you'll do better applying my guidelines than I sometimes do. Here are the steps that I recommend for determining if “no” might be the best answer for a compelling work situation:

•Review your career and life goals to determine how this option would impact progress toward your objectives.

•Weigh the short- and long-term costs and benefits of saying “yes” or “no” to this opportunity.

•Play the “change one thing” game to see if the opportunity can be modified. For example, if the promotion included tuition reimbursement to help you finish your degree, would that balance the risk of leaving your career path? Can you find a way to negotiate that condition into your acceptance?

•Once you've decided the best route, enlist a friend or counselor to help you word your answer and overcome objections you might encounter. If you've ever been talked into a “yes” after saying “no,” you'll appreciate the need for this step.

Sometimes the best teacher is experience, but there's also an argument to be made for practice. Saying “no” appropriately to the bigger decisions is easier if we've learned to say “no” to smaller issues in the workplace, such as a co-worker's request to take on more work. To help you strengthen your “no” muscle, here are five tactful ways to turn down these “opportunities”:

•I need to review my schedule – it might be tough to fit in.

•I'm afraid I won't be able to do that on time – perhaps you can find someone else to help.

•I'm sorry, but I can't do that for you.

•I can't help with the whole project, but I can do this part of it. Would that be helpful?

•That's not something I feel comfortable taking on right now, but thank you for thinking of me.

And if those don't work, here's one more to keep in your back pocket: “Not in this lifetime, buster!” That's not a career-building phrase, but sometimes you have to take the more direct path to be heard.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.