How to say 'no' gracefully and uncommit

Created on

January 3 2021


Greg McKeown - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Chapter 11: How to Say No

Why is it so hard in the moment to dare to choose what is essential over what is non essential?

One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenceless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity, it is almost as if we have a forcefield protecting us from the non essentials coming at us from all directions.

Clarity about what is essential fuels us is with the strength to say no to the non-essentials.

Second reason is innate awkwardness. We are wired to want to get along with others - as hunter gatherers, our lives depended on it.

The very thought of saying no brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don't want to let someone down. We are worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret is for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months or even years.

The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no - firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find that not only our fears of disappointing others were exaggerated, they respect us more. People admire those with the courage and conviction to say no.


Peter Drucker believed that people are effective because they say no. Say no to the non-essentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter. Say no to everything but what is truly vital.

General guidelines for how to say no:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship: when someone asks us to do something, we can confuse the request with our relationship with them. Sometimes they seem so interconnected, we forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision, and then separately find the courage and compassion to communicate it.
  • Saying no doesn't have to mean using the word 'no': overcommitted, bandwidth etc (more examples later)
  • Focus on the trade-off: The more we think of what we are giving up, the easier it is to say no. If we have no sense of the opportunity cost - the value of what we are giving up - then it is especially easy to fall into the non-essential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can't. A graceful no grows from a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is selling something: this doesn't mean you have to be cynical. Everyone is selling something - an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows us to be deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it.
  • Make your peace with the fact that saying no often means trading popularity for respect: when you say no, there is usually a short term impact on the relationship. But there is a longer term impact. When the initial response wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows that our time is valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur. For example, when graphic design Paul Rand had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs. Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Respect is far more valuable than popularity, in the long run.
  • A clear no can be more graceful than a vague or uncommital yes: A clear no is better than stringing them along with a 'I will try to make it work', when you no you can't. Delaying the no will only make it harder and the recipient that much more resentful.

The No Repertoire

To consistently say no, it helps to have a variety of responses to draw upon.
  1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by it, own it. When a request comes to you, pause for a moment. Count to 3 before you reply. Or simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
  2. The soft no or the not-but. Email is a good way to do this, because it gives you chance to draft and re-draft. It also gives you distance.
  3. 'Let me check my calendar and get back to you' gives you time to pause and reflect
  4. Use email bouncebacks
  5. Yes. What should I deprioritise? When saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is your obligation. In this case, it's essential to say no. Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes. It forces them to grapple with the trade-off. Managers don't want to make productive and organised people less productive.
  6. Say it with humour
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. Particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat, but cannot throw your full weight behind. It also expresses your respect for the other person's choice.
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It's tempting to think that our help is invaluable, but often people requesting something don't really care if we are the one to help them, as long as they get the help.
Saying no is its own leadership capability. It's not just a peripheral skill. We start as novices at 'no'. We make mistakes, we learn from them. We keep practising.

Chapter 12: Uncommit. Win big by cutting your losses

The Concorde project lost money for four years, but British and American governments continued pouring billions of dollars in. It was clear that the project would never be profitable. Why did they continue to invest in something that was clearly a loss?

One reason is sunk cost bias. Tendency to continue investing time, money, energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred or sunk a cost that cannot be recouped. This can easily become a vicious cycle - the more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through and see our investments pay-off.

An essentialist has the courage to admit their mistakes and uncommit - no matter the sunk costs. An essentialist asks: if I were not invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now? What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now? Be comfortable with cutting losses.

Ways to avoid commitment traps:

  • Beware of the endowment effect: A sense of ownership is a powerful thing. A tendency to under value things that aren't ours and to overvalue things because we already own them. (Daniel Kahneman). Items in your life that seem to become more valuable when you think of giving them away - books you haven't read, clothes you haven't worn. We have this bias when it comes to activities as well. When we feel we own an activity, it becomes harder to uncommit.
  • Pretend you don't own it yet (Tom Stafford) Don't ask how will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity, but rather if I did not have this opportunity, what would I sacrifice in order to obtain it. If I wasn't already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it.
  • Get over the fear of waste (Hal Arkes). We are trained to not appear wasteful. Instead admit failure to begin success. Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something, can we make the mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial, we continue to circle pointlessly.
  • Stop trying to force a fit. We often try too hard to be something we're not in our personal or professional lives. The solution: get a neutral second opinion. Someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation or unaffected by it can give us permission to stop forcing something that is clearly not working out.
  • Be aware of the status quo bias - the tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it. It's easy to not question commitments simply because they have already been established. One cure for this is an accounting principle - apply zero based budgeting. They use zero as the baseline. Every item in the budget must be justified from scratch. This takes more effort but it more efficiently allocates resources based on needs rather than history and encourages people to be clearer in their purpose. Instead of trying to budget your time because on existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Start from scratch, asking which you would add today (projects, relationships etc). If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.
  • Stop making casual commitments: commitments taken on through off-hand comments or casual conversation. From now on, pause before you speak. Pausing for just 5 seconds, can greatly reduce your possibility of making commitments that you will regret. Ask yourself 'is this essential'? If you've already made a casual commitment, find a way out. Simply apologise.
  • Get over the fear of missing out. One of the reasons we don't say no is the fear of missing out on something great. To fight this, run a reverse pilot. (Daniel Shapero) Test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. Stop doing it and see what the responses are. In our social lives, we can quietly remove or scale back activities to assess whether it is really making a difference.