When Saying “NO” is the Wrong Answer
Use these alternative strategies to boost your career and increase the value of your professional and personal relationships
It’s easy for requests from others to take over your life.
For example, a fellow blogger asks you to review a post and provide a few notes before it’s published. Or a fiction author asks for help with a chapter edit on a new book in progress. Or an internet marketer wants a landing page punched up to improve the click-through rate.
And then, the inevitable happens . . .
A simple question turns into a fifty-hour research project. A request to “throw together” a thousand-word article becomes a week-long marathon of rewrites and edits.
It doesn’t take long before you realize you haven’t devoted enough time on your own goals and now you’re behind schedule — because you were busy advancing the projects of others.
Here’s the problem — and it comes wrapped in professional irony: If you’re good at something, others will ask for your help.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Helping out is part of life. And if I’m completely honest, I also feel a sense of obligation. Some of these people are my friends — and I want to help them succeed.
But I also know the cost of distractions.
“Helping out” often means sacrificing the priorities you’ve established in your own life.
To preserve our personal focus and momentum, time-management gurus tell us to draw the line. We’re supposed to say “No,” while simultaneously conveying that our desire to help is sincere, but our current circumstances and workload make it impossible.
But what if the person asking for help is a personal friend? What if the project or people involved represent the potential for future business or a networking advantage?
In these instances, saying “No,” may not be the best option. In one case, your refusal could end a friendship. In the other, it could sabotage a valuable relationship before it begins.
So how do you preserve your current and future relationships — and the personal value and professional potential they represent — and still manage to stay on schedule with your own commitments?
The answer is to say “Yes” . . . .with conditions.
That means providing direction and advice — but not assuming the responsibility of doing the work yourself.
The best place to begin is to explain the limitations on your time.
For example, “Based on my current workload, I can’t take over the project, but I can certainly help you with it.”
Then use the techniques below to reduce the amount of time you’ll need to invest.
“My definition of a distraction is anything that consumes my time, yet has a priority determined by others who can’t or won’t pay for my time.” — Roger Reid
Set a specific limit on what you’re willing to do, either in the number of hours, or the extent to which you’ll complete the work.
This could mean offering to spend a couple of hours a week on the phone answering questions, brainstorming, or providing suggestions. Or you could critique the client’s work, offering ideas to improve it. Make it clear how many drafts, re-writes, or versions you’re willing to help with.
Personally, I’ve done a lot of copywriting for small businesses that couldn’t afford a full-time copywriter or ad agency. I was able to do the work quickly and effectively because I knew their business and marketplace. And because the work was done as a courtesy, I made it clear that additional versions, re-writes, or changes would be up to them.
Determine if your contribution is completely unique.
Asking for help because someone values your unique voice, talent, or past accomplishments is one thing. But asking you to take care of generic paperwork, presentation materials, or some other non-creative work is a request for an unpaid assistant.
If the work can be easily performed by others, refer the client to online generic service providers. For example, Fiverr.com is a source of independent contractors looking for work. Others include Upwork, Guru, Freelancer, People per Hour, Outsourcely, and a host of independents.
Suggest the client provide a written explanation of what they need, including the desired outcome. This can be used to solicit bids from those who are ready to work.
Many times, having a clear and concise description of the needed service is a huge step toward completing the project. If your time permits, you can offer to review the bids that are received and help “tweak” the final description of the work.
Delegate the work back to the person doing the asking.
Let’s say you’re asked to write a product feature/benefit presentation for a web page. Instead of personally researching similar products and reviews from buyers to determine what consumers like and don’t like about the competition, present the task to the client as step one.
When it’s complete, follow up with step two by asking for a list of what’s different or unique about the new product, including what makes it more effective, less expensive, easier to use, more convenient, and so on.
In other words, break the project down into steps the client can complete without requiring a huge time commitment from you.
As a result, they end up doing most of the groundwork.
Here’s another example from personal experience: A friend asked me for notes on a new book he’s writing. He was especially concerned about the actions of the protagonist in chapter three — they didn’t reflect the personality and character traits established in the previous chapters and he was concerned about undermining the character’s authenticity.
Instead of furnishing him with a re-write, I asked him to generate a list of reasons, experiences, and rationale that would explain the behavior twist. Then I asked him if any of these could be written into the backstory as a prior example of erratic behavior triggered by a specific circumstance. Finally, I suggested he do a re-write incorporating the changes.
In both examples, the process of “helping” is reduced to suggesting, directing, and guiding — much less time-consuming than actually working the project to completion.
If you decide to help because you see the potential for success, establish a realistic value for your contribution.
Occasionally, the reason you’re asked to help is because the client can’t afford the level of professional service you typically provide and is using the relationship to acquire expertise that is economically out of their reach.
Make it clear you understand the stress and frustration of trying to create a successful venture on a shoestring. But if the project is successful, suggest the possibility of a future payday (if not money, perhaps bartered services, future discounts, etc.) — especially if your contribution is a major part of getting the venture off the ground floor.
You could also offer to trade your services for an equity interest. This is especially important if you know your continued availability will be needed for expansion, product launches, promotional activity, etc.
A word of warning: Equity can be a real incentive to becoming a permanent part of the team — just make sure it’s a team you want to join.
Here’s the Takeaway . . .
It’s difficult to say “no” to someone who’s counting on you, especially if it’s someone with whom you have a continuing relationship.
And yet, always saying “yes” can result in a lack of progress on your own work.
Protect your most valuable asset in the same way a bank protects its money — accounting for every hour in, and every hour out. It’s the first step toward getting the most from your time — regardless of whether you spend it advancing your own career or in the service others.
Thanks for reading,
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Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.
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