Market musings

5 Effective Ways to Say No to Bad Ideas Over the Phone

by Sasha Viasasha
December 6, 2017

Millennials are not fond of conflict. Of course, that’s not true for all millennials or for just millennials, but there is plenty of evidence that conflict-avoidance is a fairly common problem in the business world today. 

That conclusion is backed up by reports of millennial conflict training sessions going on all across the country. A good example comes from Linda Gravett, psychologist and HR consultant at Gravett & Associates, who wrote, "One of the primary reasons in this past year or two that I've been called in to coach executives or companies around generational differences is to help them leverage the skills and talents of millennials. Many of them have trouble handling conflicts and don't have confrontational skills or seem able to deal with conflicts in a straightforward way."

Whether you are a millennial or not, it can be hard to say “No” to bad ideas over the phone. Learning how to do this can be an incredibly powerful tool that helps you get more done in less time. You can't concentrate on excellence when you are bogged down in projects you never should have taken in the first place.

The next time you get a request to take on an idea that you know is bad, stop yourself before you agree to it. Although it may feel more comfortable in the moment to send off an ambiguously worded email or instant message, those methods tend to just delays and draws out the problem.

Here are five suggestions on saying “No” quickly and effectively -- without all the hard feelings, awkward silences or the emotional baggage of politics in the workplace.

1. Do what you do best

The most successful individuals and companies excel at what they do best. That takes dedication and practice. They may never stop learning new skills, but in the professional realm you have to be an expert at one thing, not mediocre at lots of things. That's why it’s OK, to turn down work that you know you can’t do as well as someone else on the team. In fact, it's more responsible and can prevent you from getting stuck in a project that goes nowhere. “Underpromise and overdeliver” also means know your own limitations along with the strengths of your colleagues. That’s how you can collectively work together to give customers the kind of exceptional experience that they deserve.

2. Put the company mission first

Research by Gallup into nearly 50,000 companies in 49 industries around the world found that alignment of tasks to mission was “a powerful driver of organizational performance.” Let the mission decide which projects take priority and which ones you must turn down, politely. Projects that forward the mission must take priority. You don’t have to worry about explaining that you are overworked already or that the idea isn’t that great in the first place. You just need to let them know that you are on a mission-critical assignment. It’s nothing personal, it’s the mission. 

3. Let someone else be the star of your show

How do you gracefully turn away a bad idea? Counter with a better one. In her presentation, The Secret Structure of Great Talks, Duarte Design CEO Nancy Duarte laid out the framework of winning arguments and extraordinary speeches. At its most basic, the structure starts with a clear depiction of what’s wrong with the world today, then toggles back and forth to a vision of a future where those problems are a mere memory. The most important part of this structure is to cast your listener in the role of the hero who helps to transform the broken world to the better one. This is esepecially valuable when someone with more authority than you asks to to work on a bad idea. It will take preparation and practice, but this technique can be so persuasive that you don’t even have to say “No” because your listener becomes the new champion of your idea.

4. Make a data-driven decision

Acknowledge the request and ask for more time to look it over. This demonstrates that you are responsible but gives you the time you need to collect research showing that this idea just won’t work. In the old days, you could say that email went to your spam folder or the voicemail got deleted accidentally. Those excuses don’t work anymore. It’s likely that the person on the other end has software that tells them when mail is read or voicemails are played. Just commit to answering them soon and keep your promise. That gives you the time to do the research and dig up hard data and case studies about why this is a bad idea. You don't have to get into a discussion about what you think about the idea if the data say "Pass." You’ll earn a reputation for handling problems promptly and making good business decisions based on solid research.

5. Think about the future

This may not be the right idea, or the timing may simply be wrong, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to work with this person in the future. Simply, unequivocally state that you can’t take on this project at the present but you do see possibilities for future projects. If you don’t have an alternative idea right now, that’s OK. Bring up another interest that you share or a trend that’s sweeping the industry. Set up a meeting where you can brainstorm. You never know when a connection will come in handy, and the person on the other end is probably thinking the same thing. Keep the dialog open, but close the door on this particular idea.

Ending the call

Often the harder you try to convince another party of your position, the more they become entrenched in their original position. Cornell University researchers reported that arguments lose their persuasive edge after a handful of exchanges or so. While two exchanges tended to be more persuasive than one, that reverses itself after 4-5 exchanges. After that, both parties demonstrated virtually no chance of changing the other’s mind.

This is precisely what business researchers have observed in countless situations where email or chat messages start flying back and forth without a successful resolution. A two-minute phone call solves more problems and is much more persuasive than chains of arguments, no matter how well reasoned and supported. Say "No" to bad ideas simply, authoritatively and move on. This will free you from the time-consuming pain of bad projects and anxiety over unresolved conflicts.  

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