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How to say "no" to clients, bosses, and stakeholders

When is the last time you told a client “no?” Better yet, when’s the last time you told your boss “no?”

Maybe I’ve just worked with freakishly nice people in the past 20 years, but I rarely hear this word told to a client or stakeholder. People are just too nice. Especially if you’re a project manager, a business owner, or head up the service arm of an organization; you want your client to have a good experience with you. You want them to be happy with the end result (and work with you again!).

But the downside is, if we don’t learn to say no in a clear and constructive way to clients, key stakeholders, and...yes...even bosses, then we’ll do a huge disservice to our time, our team’s time, and even the end product.

So, how can we to learn to say “no,” in a way that doesn’t throw up barriers, but allows the projects to stay on track?

An agreement: Grownups working together

It seems obvious, but we often forget: an agreement is when two or more parties decide to work together to accomplish a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) that no one party can achieve on their own.

Let that sit for a moment. This statement is foundational to the rest of this post.

Regardless of whether this is a formal, signed contract, or a simple email confirmation, it means that the two parties need each other to accomplish this goal.

The client or sponsor is the driver, yes, and has brought resources to bear to accomplish this goal that you’re managing, but you were not brought on to be a “yes” person. (If you were, then stop reading right now and go find another job. You’re in an unhealthy situation!)

The client’s in the driver’s seat, but you create the lanes

So now, let’s assume you have an agreement between professionals who acknowledge the different skill sets needed to execute on this project and you’re on point to get this BHAG done.

If that’s the case, then your goal is to keep the client in the driver’s seat, but within the lanes you define.

It’s like when I give my kids choices. In the morning, I don’t ask my 5-year-old daughter “What do you want to wear today?” If I asked her that on a cold winter morning, she’d choose a flouncy pink skirt and tank top. I can’t leave her options that wide open!

Rather, I ask her, “Which of these pants and long-sleeved shirts do you want? And which of these socks?”

She’s still in the driver’s seat, but I’m giving her choices that align with our primary goal: get her to school on time and avoid catching pneumonia.

Same thing with stakeholders. If your job is to accomplish certain goals, then you need to protect those goals by giving the stakeholders clear options that respect their role in the project but also keep the project on task.

Here are three scenarios that show what this can look like and how you can respond in a healthy and productive way:

Scenario 1: The Scope-Creeper

If a client asks for something new or out of scope and you think it’ll impact the timeline, don’t just say “Yes” or make up an arbitrary deadline on the spot.

Instead, be transparent, and say:

“That may impact our timeline, but I don’t have enough information to know for certain. I’ll review this with the team and get back to you about next steps by COB tomorrow. Then you can decide whether you want to proceed.” (This response is another example of proactive, transparent, and actionable communication.)

This helps you to avoid agreeing to something that will derail your project, but it still keeps the client in the driver’s seat.

You can then come back the next day with something like:

“OK, we can do that. But in order to do so, we will need to push the delivery out three weeks and increase the cost by $5,000. Would you like to proceed? Or we could roll that into a phase 2 after we launch the original product.”

So now, you’re a partner in this process and the end product—not blindly saying yes to the detriment of your own team, but not saying no and putting up walls.

Scenario 2: The Ideator

These people both amaze and frustrate me because they have probably 30 brilliant ideas in the shower every morning (compared to my, say, one per decade), but they don’t necessarily know what it takes to accomplish those brilliant ideas. Nor are they usually in the weeds of the team’s day-to-day balancing act.

So how do you respect this person and make the most of these brilliant shower-ideas, but not let it derail your current goals?

First of all, don’t avoid the person or agree to anything without sufficient information. Corral the person. Consider saying something like:

It's exciting to hear about these ideas! Unfortunately, if we are going to hit Milestone X, we need to stay focused on the current phase of the project.

That being said, I’d love to dedicate 15 minutes of the agenda on our next call to hear more about this so that the team and I can better understand the context. The team will then discuss internally, and present you with a few options for proceeding.

If you don’t have a call already scheduled, include three time slots that work for you and the team to discuss, and ask the client to pick one of those. This way, you’re driving the schedule, and the client is still being heard and respected.

Scenario #3: The Fly-Over

Ugh… this one is the worst.

(Many of you are already nodding your heads; I can tell.)

You’re in the zone; you’re focused on a certain task, when the client swings by your desk or drops you a DM: “I need you to run these reports… or prepare a presentation… or data check this 50-page document.”

Responding to this one is an art form, and if you haven’t had to push back to someone senior before, the first few times will feel really awkward. (I remember pushing back on a boss about 10 years ago and literally wincing when I sent the email! I had to go for a brisk walk to work off the anxiety!)

But this ability is so vital. Remember: if you’re responsible for the goal, it also means you’re responsible for not letting people derail it. Or at least guiding the client make an informed decision.

This response is a blend of responding to the Ideator and Scope-Creeper. But, unlike the first two, you have to respond in a matter of seconds—not days.

First, ask for context: Unless you have an unreasonable boss (if so, re-read the “Grownups Working Together” section), you should ask about what’s driving this particular need at this particular time. Is there a situation you’re not aware of that truly requires this? What is the client seeing that you’re not?

Ideally, after a bit of context conversation, you and the client can usually figure out together whether this task is truly necessary in the requested time frame.

Second, shoot straight: Let the client know what deadlines would slip if the team dropped everything to accommodate the request. Share this information objectively and calmly; don’t be exasperated or frazzled.

Third, work out the next steps: Now that you both have the critical information, you can work together to determine next steps. Maybe the fly-over request really is that urgent; it’s OK. Things like this happen. Just clearly define what will be impacted because of it. Make sure you and the client verbally agree to next steps.

Lastly, follow up with an email: No joke on this one. In the heat of the moment, people’s recollections of conversations can be sketchy.

Immediately sit down, and email the person something like,

“Thank you for dropping by. Per our discussion, we will take care of your request by COB tomorrow. As I mentioned, however, this will impact one milestone by 2 days, so I’ll ensure the other stakeholders know the update to the plan.”

In summary: Communication. Communication. Communication. That’s the key to these scenarios. And like I tell my kids: “Speak calmly and kindly,” and you’ll be surprised at the collaboration that can result.

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