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Why Effective Collaborative Communicators Learn to Say “No”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 11:45
Saying No

In a recent interview with the innovation-focused magazine The Signal, Ken Norton, a product partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm GV, discussed what he calls the “discipline of no.”

“I’m naturally a very collaborative, eager-to-please person,” Norton, whose current portfolio includes digital companies Uber and Slack, confesses to The Signal. “I’m an introvert. I’m conflict-averse.”

Early in his career, he believes he failed to say “no” too often to too many requests. He didn’t always say “yes” either. Sometimes he just left matters open-ended in the hope issues would fade or resolve themselves without a decision or action from him. Norton feels this oft-assenting or indeterminate posture hindered his development as a project manager.

The problem, he explained, was reluctance to say no created ambiguity – for him as a leader and for his teams. And the problem with ambiguity in business is the uncertainty it creates, which can put drag on productivity, stifle creativity and siphon engagement.

3 Negative Effects Too Little “No” Can Have on Virtual Collaboration

As explored in past posts, today’s increasingly global, mobile workforce is redefining the meaning of “face-to-face” business interactions. In a metaphorical sense, the distance between colleagues is widening. When participants in a meeting are not in the same room, building, city or even country, the challenge of keeping our teammates’ collective attention during virtual sessions can be more daunting than ever. In this environment, bringing definition to direction, priorities and assignments is critical for collaborative communicators.

So, failing to be definitive in virtual meetings – i.e., putting too little no in the mix – can have three negative effects on collaboration:

1. Wobbling Productivity
When every idea, entreaty or assignment is entertained by you and your teammates, collaboration overload is inevitable. No combination of productivity tools and techniques can enable you or your teammates to answer every inquiry or fulfill every promise.

2. Waning Creativity
As workload increases and schedules clutter, innovation suffers. Teammates avoid introducing ideas in fear of creating more tasks, and team leaders hesitate to ask for ideas in fear of inspiring resistance from colleagues.

3. Weakening Engagement
The combination of wobbling productivity and waning creativity weakens engagement from team members. Frustrated and fatigued colleagues operating in an environment where every request receives equal urgency are apt to sit silent during conference calls or web meetings, not wanting to risk increasing business burdens for themselves and their teammates.

3 Positive Effects Saying “No” Can Have on Virtual Collaboration

A negative response can have lasting positive consequences in virtual settings. We see three:

1. Clarifying Priority
Per Norton: “When you categorize something as non-urgent or non-important, that’s not saying things won’t change in the future. It just means there are other priorities that take precedence.”

2. Fostering Ingenuity
By clarifying priorities, saying no removes distractions and frees time for exercises in creative collaboration, such as structured brainstorming sessions.

3. Sparking Enthusiasm
Clear priorities can boost a team’s confidence and morale, just as having more time for deeper concentration on one’s work can produce a sense of satisfaction. Putting those feelings together can generate more energy and, thus, more productive momentum for a team.

How Collaborative Communicators Give Negative Answers in Positive Ways

Effective collaborative communicators understand that saying no in an assertive and firm fashion doesn’t preclude future flexibility and possibility.

“This requires us to be clear and honest about our own needs and preferences” as leaders and colleagues, says presentation and communication coach Deborah Grayson Riegel. She believes declining requests for time and effort from yourself or your team is possible “while honoring the needs and preferences of others (to be heard, to feel appreciated, to stay connected, to avoid shame, to maintain their dignity in the face of rejection, etc.).”

In a recent column for Psychology Today, Riegel offers 20 ways to say no assertively. Here’s a sampling of her suggestions, with our spin for team leaders:

  • Short and Strong: Normally, we would say yes, but we have already committed to ________.
  • Check Later: We must decline now, but I hope you’ll keep us in mind for the future. Would you please reach out again?
  • Time-Sensitive, Topic-Specific: Right now, we’re saying no to all requests (on this topic, at this timeframe, etc.). Here’s why… Alternative Resources: We’re not available, but I know another group that would be a good fit. May I connect you?
  • Alternative Solutions: We can’t commit to this project over the long run, but perhaps we still can help in other ways. Have a few minutes to brainstorm different ways we can support you?

Like Riegel, Norton believes the secret to saying no effectively is doing so in a way that generates options instead of eliminating them. Says Norton: “What I like to remember is saying ‘no’ to one thing is saying ‘yes’ to something else.”

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