The Gentle Art of Saying No…

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Saying ‘no’ to people can actually be good for your role, your mental health, and your career says Susie Barron-Stubley

We’ve all been there, we’ve got a hundred and one things to do, deadlines are pressing, emails are mounting, phones are ringing, the Blackberry is beeping, and the reminders just keep on popping up, apparently lunch was about three hours ago, not that you really noticed, and then one of your Executive’s direct reports staggers up to you looking close to breaking point and practically sobbing asks for your help in preparing 15 urgent packs for a client meeting tomorrow. The thoughts in your mind are probably very different to what comes out your mouth. What you’re thinking almost certainly isn’t printable here, you might raise your eyebrows in an exasperated way, but what you say is something more like ‘leave it here; I’ll make sure it’s all ready in time’.   How can you refuse? It’s for one of your Executive’s team, it’s for a client meeting and who else will do it anyway?

The speed and pressure of how we work as Assistants often means that we crowd our working lives with ‘yeses’ and don’t allow ourselves, or allocate, time to focus on our own core business priorities, and therefore our own business success. We become over responsible for other peoples workloads (and dare I say occasional poor planning), focusing our time and energy on ensuring others people’s priorities are met over our own. Saying ‘yes’ to all requests from all people can be detrimental to our own roles, productivity and output.

I want to consider why we say ‘yes’, when at times we want to, and really should, say ‘no’. I’m a great believer in that we train people how to treat us and how they behave towards us, and we often train people that it’s okay to ask, and expect us, to prioritise their work over our own, albeit subconsciously. As Assistants, how we train people to act towards us is often down to our own ‘internal rules’ of how we view the role and responsibilities of Assistants. If we view the role of Assistant as everyone else’s ‘fixer’ then we take away our capability of saying ‘no’ at times. And just for the record – it’s not only okay to say ‘no’ every now and then, but essential for our own effectiveness and sanity!

Where we need to start is to become crystal clear on the boundaries of our roles – most Assistants know where their role starts, it’s were the role stops that becomes tricky. If we don’t know where the role stops, it makes it virtually impossible to say ‘no’. If your job description has a catch all statement on it that says ‘and to support the ad hoc needs of the team’ it makes it incredibly difficult to say ‘no’ to a request from anybody. Now I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be willing to provide ad hoc support, quite the opposite, there are always times when it’s essential that we remain flexible and willing to go the extra mile. It’s when this ad hoc support gets out of control and is regularly leading you away from your core business priorities and focussing more on others priorities than our own when we need to start to learn how to say ‘no’.

One important thing to bear in mind is that other people will always have their own agendas bubbling away. If it’s easier to ask you to do something that they really don’t want to do, they probably will. But there may be other factors at play: it can be a power or prestige issue to have an Assistant carry out some work for them, or they may be plain old disorganised, or (and I’ll whisper this one) idle. Does that make their request for work an urgent priority for you, pushing your own workload down the priority list? Sometimes. Maybe. Most often not. Human beings can at times be manipulative to meet their own agenda: stay alert to this to be able to identify when and how to push back on some requests – it’s critical to your own business success.

So how do we gain clarity on the boundaries of the role and understand when and how we can push back and say ‘no’?

Firstly, you will need to discuss and gain agreement from your Executive on how they see your role, where it starts and where it stops. Undertake a time audit. Log exactly how much time you are spending on requests or ad hoc work that you feel you might be able to push back on. Armed with this information discuss with your Executive if that’s how they believe you should be spending your time. If you are spending your time saying ‘yes’ to all of the ad hoc requests, the likelihood is that it’s leading you away from focusing on your Executive. You absolutely need their support and agreement of what you can and cannot do. You are not a super hero who has 28 hours in a day to be all things to all people. You need to give yourself permission to say ‘no’ every now and then.

Once you’ve defined these boundaries with your Executive, it’s time to communicate these out to the people who it will affect. If you are going to change a behaviour with anybody and start to say ‘no’ when you’ve previously always said ‘yes’, it’s important that the person in question understands why you’re changing a behaviour. Having a pre-emptive discussion with the said person will allow them to understand why you are saying ‘no’ and this will make it a whole lot easier for them to accept the ‘no’, and might even focus them on their own working patterns and if they can maximise and plan more effectively. The discussion may go along the lines of:

“John, I just wanted to have a quick chat with you. I know I’ve been supporting you with printing out the client packs recently, but I’ve been speaking with (my Executive) and I’m going to be working on their priorities slightly differently from now on so I might not always have the same amount of time that I’ve previously had to dedicate to this. If you’re able to give me more advance notice on when these are coming up, I’ll have a better chance of being able to prioritise this into my workload. I don’t want you to think I’m being unhelpful if I can’t help out at the last minute, I’m just changing the way I’m working a little”.

If necessary, ask your Executive to send out a communication stating any shift in your role and where these new boundaries lie.

OK so, you’ve given yourself permission to say ‘no’, your Executive has agreed that there areactually boundaries to your role, now onto how to say ‘no’.

This can feel tricky. Of course we need to maintain positive working relationships with everyone around us, and saying ‘no’ can feel counter-intuitive to being an Assistant, but the clue is in the job title – we’re there to assist! This is not about being uncooperative, difficult or negative. It’s about enabling you to focus on your core business objectives and strip away some of the ‘interference’ that plagues Assistants.

Here are some phrases that will help you say No without, a) actually saying the word ‘no’, b) offending anyone, and c) re-training people in how and what they approach you with.

  • John I’d really like to help you out, I can see you are under pressure, however, I am working on a deadline for David right now and I just don’t have the spare capacity.
  • I’d really like to say yes, but it’s not something that I’m expert with, have you tried asking (insert name)?
  • Yes I can help, but it’s not going to be until Thursday morning as I need to finish these reports before I start anything else.
  • I would really like to help, but I have family commitments this evening and absolutely have to leave on time today.
  • I’m working on David’s board packs right now, but if you’re able to give me a greater lead time next time, I will be able to schedule it into my priorities.
  • I can’t right now, I’m sorry.

Someone else’s work, priorities, concerns or issues, don’t automatically become your problem because they have come to you with them. Allow people to own their own workloads and to find their own solutions. Question your own responses to other people: do you take it upon yourself to become everyone else’s ‘fixer’? By learning how to say ‘no’ effectively, assertively and kindly, will allow you to take back time, focus on your own and your Executive’s core objectives, and ultimately gain greater control over your working life.

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About Author

Susie Barron-Stubley

Susie is a highly experienced and sought after international Executive Coach, Trainer and Motivational Speaker, she specialises in developing senior level Executive PAs and EAs, and has changed the working practices of thousands of PAs around the world. She has a passion matched by few for the professional and personal development of PAs. She is a regular traveller and delivers Advanced Executive PA Training in Australia, China, South Africa, Dubai, India and South East Asia, giving her a comprehensive global perspective on the role of Senior Assistants. In the UK she continues to research, develop and deliver innovative and challenging development programmes to support Assistants in rapidly changing business environments to meet the increasing skill sets required of Senior PAs.

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