Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
At work, many times we have to say no to internal customer requests because they aren’t priorities or because we aren’t the people who can help them. The problem is that our staff has learned to say no too well and it’s becoming a negative experience for our internal customers. What ideas do you have for saying no without turning off our internal customers?
Dear Dr. No,
What auspicious timing. I’ve been thinking about this very topic because of a recent experience I had in the Philadelphia Airport. Having just finished working with a group of remarkable leaders from Southeast Asia, I was in a pretty perky mood when I approached the reservation agent to check in. I offered a cheery “Hello!” to the agent, who simply stared at me in response. At first I assumed she might be deep in thought on some other topic, so I said a bit louder, “Good afternoon!” She cocked her head to the side, closed and opened her eyes slowly, and said, “I heard you. What do you want?” Apparently her day wasn’t going as well as mine.
I told her my destination, handed her my ID, and then asked, “Is my flight on time?” To which she answered… drum roll… “No.” I thought I saw a slight smile creep up her face.
Now, the information she provided me was highly accurate. So why did I feel less than grateful for her highly accurate information? It wasn’t the no that hurt, it was the story I told myself about the no.
When you tell people no, there are two problems you can create; the first is disappointment. The second, disrespect. The first says, “The world isn’t going to work the way you hoped it would.” The second says, “And I don’t really care!”
While you may occasionally need to create the first problem, you need never create the second. In fact, the first one feels less vexing if delivered by someone who assiduously avoids the second.
Here are some things to keep in mind when delivering a no.
Find a way to say yes. Even if you can’t do everything the customers want, show you care by finding a way to mitigate the disappointment. For example, if you try to make a reservation at one of Danny Meyer’s highly popular New York restaurants, there’s a 90 percent chance the time and date you want won’t be available. Reservation agents, therefore, always come up with a yes they can add to their no. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Grenny, that time doesn’t work at the Union Square Café, but I can get you in at Gramercy Tavern. Or, perhaps I could move your time back two hours and then I can find you a table at Union Square…” When delivering bad news, show you care by proposing alternatives: different times, smaller requirements, other resources the customer can use, etc.
Help, don’t scold. It sounds as though part of your problem is that people make requests of your team that don’t fit your scope or role. Of course, it would be highly inefficient and a misuse of your scarce resources to say yes when your duties are in another direction. In this case, you can still show you care by not just saying, “We don’t do that,” but actually taking the customer’s hand to guide them to the place that does. For example, while on the same trip to Philadelphia I stayed at a wonderful Ritz Carlton hotel. In the morning, I donned my exercise clothes and rode the elevator to the lobby then looked around confusedly for the Fitness Center. A housekeeper noticed my lost look. Rather than simply saying, “It’s not here, doofus,” she said, “Follow me.” She walked me to the elevator, called for an elevator car, then pushed the appropriate button and wished me a good workout.
Manage the story. An unexplained no feels much different from a no with a reason. For example, when the reservation agent said no, I realize now that I instinctively searched her face to see whether she cared. Perhaps the smile I thought I saw didn’t really happen. But you and I are hard wired to assess the motives of people we interact with. When we enter a room, a significant amount of cognitive processing power is spent scanning the room for social, emotional, or physical threats. Evolutionary biologists suggest that this automatic behavior is highly adaptive. When someone tells us no, our brains kick into assessment mode to determine whether this person is celebrating our disappointment (meaning they are a potential threat) or is sympathetic with it. All you need do to communicate the latter and avoid the former is offer a small explanation. There is a seven-second difference between “The movie is sold out” and “I’m sorry, we just sold the last ticket. A large group of senior citizens came in a bus to this showing.” But the two feel much different.
I’m impressed that you are aware of the need to offer a different kind of no. It speaks to your concern for your customers and desire to serve.