Learn to say “No” (i)

“Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.”

-Bob Carter

What do you do when someone asks you to do a task you would rather not? Picture this scenario. You are working on a project early in the morning, trying to build momentum. Someone approaches. They ask if you have five minutes. They need your help to go over a report that they have to submit later today. What do you tell them?

You have three options. The first is to say “No. Go away.” That would do the trick and you might be able to get back to work after that but it won’t win you any allies that way. The second is to say “Yes” and allow the person take control of your schedule for the rest of the morning. You know the report was supposed to have been their responsibility and you feel they shouldn’t bother you. It’s not your job to look over their report. Yet you also feel you could do a better job of it than your colleague. Maybe they need a little help after all and you know you could write a better report than them. So you check the report and it’s a mess and you end up having to rewrite parts of it. By the time you are done, you have “helped” your colleague write a report and they can turn it in just in time. Then you go back to your original task and curse the fact that since you have wasted so much time you now have to work after office hours to finish your work.

No words necessary

Let’s analyse this a second option (I promise we will look at the third). If the second option feels familiar to you, then you may be in the habit of saying “yes” when in your heart you mean “no.” A lot of us want to be liked by our colleagues and are happy to be asked to help out. It means they respect our opinion (or talents). Also, a lot needs to get done. Just not by you. If you are always helping other people get their important tasks done, you won’t have time for yours.

The third option would be something like this. You are feeling generous this morning so you tell your colleague “Alright. Only five minutes though.” You make a point to look at your watch when you say this and give them your undivided attention. After they tell you what they want, you look them in the eye and tell them “I would have loved to help but I need to work on this task now. If you had told me about this a few days ago, I might have made 30 minutes on my schedule to help you review before your deadline. Perhaps you can find someone else to help.” At which point your colleague would most likely take the hint and move along. You have let them know what to do the next time they need your assistance.

A clockface
Not the best time for me to do this

The first time you try this might be difficult but practice and it comes easier. You need to be polite but assertive. They are responsible for their own work and you can’t keep helping them out all the time. The sooner they figure this out, the better it will be for everyone on the team.

There is another set of non-work related tasks for which people struggle to say “No.” I will talk more about them next week and provide a framework for deciding whether those tasks should be done by you or someone else.

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