A Clear “No” Can Be More Graceful Than a Vague or Noncommittal “Yes”


  • Sometimes the right (or at least initial) response to a request for action “now” is “No.” – It’s far easier to say “yes” later on…
  • On the other hand, maybe you don’t even have to choose between “Yes” and “No” particularly if you’re trying to initiate a conversation.

A post by Ken Robinson on FrontRowAgile reminded me how powerful “No” can be.

Deeper Dive: Saying No at Work

In his 2014 book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less author Greg McKeown provides a vast number of ways to approach doing no better:

Separate The Decision From The Relationship

When people ask us to do something, we can confuse the request with our relationship with them. Sometimes the two seem so interconnected, we forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find both the courage and the compassion to communicate it.

Saying “No” Gracefully Doesn’t Have To Mean Using The Word No

McKeown provides a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no.

  • “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth”
  • “I would very much like to but I’m over-committed,”
  • “Sounds interesting. Let me think about it and get back to you.”

As McKeown says: Remember That A Clear “No” Can Be More Graceful Than A Vague Or Noncommittal “Yes”

As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a vague or noncommittal “yes” situation knows, a clear “I am going to pass on this” is far better than not getting back to someone or stringing them along with some noncommittal answer like “I will try to make this work” or “I might be able to” when you know you can’t. Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder— and the recipient that much more resentful. (See: Say, Mean, Do: The Language of Commitment)

Focus On The Trade-Off

McKeown continues: The more we think about what we are giving up when we say “yes” to someone, the easier it is to say “no.” If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost— in other words, the value of what we are giving up— then it is especially easy to fall into the nonessential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can’t. A graceful “no” grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.

The “No” Repertoire

The reality is that you won’t need to say “no” just occasionally. To consistently say “no” with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are a few responses you can put in your “no” repertoire. (Do you have more? Share, please….)

  1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit bolder, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). “I am consumed with XYZ right now 🙂 But I would love to help once that is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the day/next week/the month.” E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but ” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Doing so gives you the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply – rather than be rushed into a “yes” when asked.
  4. “Well, if you need an answer now, I’ll have to say ‘no.’ But if you can wait, I will give it more thought.”
  5. Say, “Yes. And what should I deprioritize?”
Sometimes the right (or at least initial) response to a request for action now is No. - It's far easier to say yes later on... Share on X

Be a No-sayer, not a Naysayer

Following excerpt from How to Say No and Live to Tell About It

You can be a no-sayer without automatically becoming a naysayer.

Being a no-sayer does not make one a naysayer. For those who tend to be optimistic, understanding the difference is crucial. By definition, a naysayer is someone who habitually refuses, denies, or opposes. Naysayers have a negative attitude and see only why ideas won’t work. They are possibly extinguishers instead of possibility thinkers. Naysayers are good at grousing, grumbling, and complaining. Because of this, they are often tiresome and unpleasant to be around.

The negative nature of naysaying drives many to the opposite extreme. Instead of using no wisely, many become yes-sayers because they are afraid they will turn into naysayers if they don’t.

Naysayers are often unhappy and make it their goal, consciously or subconsciously, to make sure others are unhappy to. We’ all felt the impact of naysaying at some point in our lives and want to avoid negatively influencing others in the way we’ve been affected. Avoiding the trap requires understanding the difference between on-sayers and naysayers. Here’s a side by side comparison

Habitually refuse, deny, or oppose.Have a strong sense of purpose and turn down opportunities only after measuring them against a purpose.
Infect other people with their negativity.Affect other people positively by having the courage to say no when necessary.
See only why ideas won’t work.See possibility but understand they don’t have to be personally involved in implementing every idea
Good at grousing, grumbling and complainingGood at evaluating, weighing, and prioritizing.
Are often unhappy.Are usually content.

I assume that you’d rather be a no-sayer than a naysayer, but the truth is many of us have qualities of both – sometimes at the same time! It’s possible to see why an idea won’t work while also spotting a glimmer of possibility. You can grouse and complain while you’re also weighing and prioritizing. It is not possible, however, to simultaneously harbor the countenance of both a no-sayer and a naysayer. One is content while the other is not. These feelings are mutually exclusive; they can’t reside side by side in your soul. Because of this a decision must be made. Do you prefer the life of a no-sayer or a naysayer? Naysaying comes naturally to many people. No-saying does not. The latter requires that we develop new ways of thinking and reacting to requests for our time. Specifically, no sayers:

  • Pause and ponder after being asked to make a commitment
  • Practice the art of deliberation before responding to requests. They think and act intentionally, rather than “shooting from the hip.”
  • Make it a habit to review their priorities, assess their current obligations, and survey their calendars before making a commitment.
  • Practice the art of finding something positive about everything, even when they hear an idea or suggestions they think won’t work or they don’t like. They attempt to help others see the positive as well. See: “Plussing” – Learning and Working in a Collaborative Environment
  • Refuse to speak negatively. If they can’t say something nice, they choose not to say anything at all.
  • Encourage and acknowledge the work other people are doing, even if they choose not to participate
  • Deliberately shift their mindset when necessary. When they begin to feel pessimistic, they reframe a situation or question so that it accentuates the positive rather than the negative.
  • Surround themselves with people who are energetic and enthusiastic. They limit as much as possible their exposure to naysayers.

[it’s a bit corny but….] We become what we think about. Negative thoughts create a negative person. Positive thoughts create a positive one. Saying no is not a negative act if we harness its power to help reach our goals.

Where are you?

Not sure where you are on the continuum of “no” to “nay” or “yes, but” to “yes, and…”? Ask a teammate, a peer, or a manager. Ask them to tell you the truth as they see it. (And be open to hearing it)

Trust your teammates to express their integrity, as you would with them. It’s easy to be honest when we agree with each other, but it is more important to be honest when we disagree or when we make missteps.

No matter how difficult to say or hear, the truth is the kindest thing we can give each other.

Being vague is not the same as being graceful. Share on X

Product Owners

Below is the classic video by Henrik Kniberg where he explores the role of the Product Owner. In it, he makes the point that the most important word that a PO can use is “No.” Sure it can be tempting to say “Yes” to every request, to pretend that things are always feasible or easy. But a “No” is important: “No” implies that trade-off decisions need to be made on the part of the customer or the organization’s leadership. One powerful word leads to thinking, discussion, and decision-making.


“No” is a very powerful word in the context teams. For example:

  • If their Product Owner expects them to deliver more than their capacity
  • If anyone asked them to deliver faster and it would violate their Definition of Done agreements
  • If a Team Member continues to “go it alone” and refuses to collaborate as a team

“Yes,” But “Not Now” or “Not Me”

From Joanne Perold’s post Doing No Better:

There are many ways to say “No,” and we need to find the most useful way to do that. We as development teams and Product Owners need to use the information that we have. We need to have valuable conversations about what is possible and what is not. And we need to use that information effectively to address the fears and concerns of the business and our customers.

“No” is a very final statement, finding useful ways to say, not right now or is this the most valuable thing we should be doing is a more effective way of having this conversation.

  • “Not Me” – Delegate. If someone else can take action, entrust the “to do” to them.
  • “Not Now” – Record. If only you can do the request, but it isn’t urgent, record the request. Be sure to do so in a way that the requester trusts; don’t just promise to remember it. And never trust your brain to remember a request. Record the request on paper or digitally. (Or ask the requester to do so.) Your brain has better things to do.

Have the “Right” Conversations

From Velocity Partners “Is NO the Right Response from Agile Teams?

“No” is important, it is also very final. It implies that you can’t have whatever it is that you want. That is not an answer that Product Owners and Teams, trying to keep customers and stakeholders happy can go back with too frequently…

Sure, at times you might have to (or need to) say a clear, certain, and close-ended “No.” However, it should be a rare exception. (For that matter, a quick and thoughtless “Yes” is rarely a good response.)

Maybe we should be less binary. What if we are having conversations that include:

  • More empathy
  • More shared understanding
  • More options
  • Realistic levels of effort
  • Budgets and constraints
  • Quality and safety implications
  • Trade-offs
  • Alternative and innovative ideas
  • Exploration of goals & needs
  • Courage to explore the truth
  • 360-degree discussions
  • Exploratory collaboration

Changing a Habit

No matter where you are if you want to start building a new habit, there are four steps:

  • Step 1: Catch yourself after the fact
  • Step 2: Catch yourself in the act
  • Step 3: Think about it before you act
  • Step 4: Say and act without thinking about it

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