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Two Gorgeous Ways of Saying NO in Business…Without Throwing Cheeseburgers at People’s Heads

In: Communication Skills

Boundaries in business are important. I'm obsessed with them. I talk about boundaries a lot. Probably because when I was young, I was very, very horrible at setting them.

Girlfriends would nag me into doing whatever dumb thing they wanted me to do that weekend, like crochet. Or sneak out bedroom windows at 1 o'clock in the morning to go meet cute boys next door who wanted us to take off our shirts. I actually have a diary entry where I'm absolutely aghast the night my best friend Lucy actually DID IT. Nevertheless, Lucy went on to go down a broken path of dreams, just as I suspected. Then again, I suppose we all did, at one point or another.

When I got older, it was less about setting boundaries with friends, and more about setting boundaries with whatever fling you were having. One time, I caught my Italian wannabe boyfriend going through my text messages. I don't know how normal people deal with these kind of boundary issues, but my first reaction was to rocket my McDonald's cheeseburger at his head. Ketchup, mustard and pickles cascading down his face, he yelled that we were breaking up. I accepted, and then went to buy myself another cheeseburger. Such is life.

Then, of course, when I graduated to the business world, I was still equally bad at setting boundaries—but fortunately seasoned enough to know that throwing cheeseburgers at my boss' head probably wasn't a good idea. That is, until the night I bumped into him and my co-worker kissing on a random dance floor in center city Philadelphia. He was a married man. I would have thrown an entire McDonald's at his head if I could have.

When 2006 rolled around and I started my first copywriting business, boundaries took on a whole new meaning. As in, GET SOME OR DIE. It was hard saying “no” to people who were giving me money. It felt almost like a bait and switch. Until I realized that people weren't paying me to say “yes.” They were paying me to write. That reminder helped me a lot in those early years. Anything that didn't support my main job for them—writing—was rejected. This eliminated a lot of the, “Hey, you're good with computers. You think you could help me format this 100 page case study?” Which, surprisingly, was a fairly typical kind of request for a little freelancer like me, at the time.

Then, of course, you've got present day me. The present day me says no more than I say, “wine, please.” I'm now a NO samurai. I love saying no. It feels so good. Protecting my head space is the most important thing I could ever do.

I love when other people tell me, “no,” too. It shows me they care about themselves. And if they're working for me, it shows me that they care about their work. I can rest easy knowing I'm not giving someone panic attacks in the middle of the night. No is healthy. No is realistic. No is yes, in a way. It just might be in a different way than most people assume. It's yes to a priority, yes to a reputation, yes to control, yes to professionalism.

Just this week, I've had two people tell me “no” in a way that felt so respectful, so supportive of our work and relationship together.

The first was just a few minutes ago. I have a conference call at 11am today. We all know I'm a talker. This person made sure to make the disclaimer:

“I have a hard stop at 11:25, but we may only need 15-20 minutes.”

Beautifully done. Bravo! It sets expectations for everyone, and sets him up for a professional exit—not one that feels like he's slighting me.

The other was earlier this week. It's one of our developers. He said this:

“According to Home Base you'll hear from us again on April 15 with some really sexy updates. Until then, have a splendid week.”

You know what that does? It lets me know they aren't going to be in constant contact–which is a no in disguise. It's a no to constant availability, the feeling of being put on-call by your clients. And it is GORGEOUS. (Furthermore, by using the phrase “According to Home Base,” they remove the pressure off themselves and show me that it's our agreed upon timeline. Another really great tip.)

I think no might be the most beautiful word in the English language. And in Italian, too. And in Spanish, too. You can say it with a Spanish accent if it makes you feel better about it. Why not? Let's practice.

No! *Throws hands into air while wearing dramatic red lipstick*
No! *Waves a loaf of bread at you*
No! *Crinkles nose and makes face of disgust*
No! *Stomps foot in dramatic display of bravado*

See? That felt great!

Your homework today: Say no as many times as you can. (And maybe in as many foreign accents as you can.) You don't need to rationalize yourself to everyone you meet. Sometimes, a two-letter word is all you need.

Unless, of course, you happen to be armed with a cheeseburger, in which case, you'll know exactly what to do.

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