You have probably heard the old adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Though often attributed to the very busy Lucille Ball, the insight may be as old as civilization. People who know how to get things done gain a reputation for effectiveness and have many opportunities to be busy.

My CEO executive coaching clients are very busy and receive many requests to get things done from employees, shareholders, clients, family members, churches, governments, non-profits, etc., etc. So many requests, in fact, that they often find themselves expending time and attention on things that are not their top priorities. They may also find themselves letting people down, backing out of promises, and feeling inadequate.

I often need to train my clients on how to say, “No.”

I developed my technique many years ago when I had established a strong reputation as an effective volunteer in an organization I supported. This reputation led to a deluge of requests, more than I could responsibly accept. Here is the formula:

  1. Take a moment to frame the request as an acknowledgment of your effectiveness. This request is coming to you because you have successfully established an admirable reputation for yourself.
    • It is not a problem that this person is asking you for something. You worked to be a person worth asking. Take the compliment!
  2. Listen to the commitment expressed by the person making the request. Let your respect for their goals and intentions show up in the conversation.
    • Making this request does not make them rude, intrusive, or demanding. You are responsible for the request because your reputation is the source of it.
    • People making requests are trying to make something happen, they care about results. These are your kind of people!
  3. Bring your highest priorities and values to mind. Would accepting the request, putting aside for a moment whether you have the time and resources to agree, support your goals? If so, try on some scenarios that might make it work for you.
    1. Bask for a moment in the experience of fulfilling this request. How would that feel? What would it make possible in your life, your world?
  4. Choose. Say “Yes” or “No” with freedom.
    1. You can decline the request without whining about how overburdened you are.
    2. You can decline the request without diminishing the person making the request.
    3. You can decline without losing your relationship with the requester.
    4. You can decline without removing your support of the requester’s goals and values.

Here is how it might sound. “Ms. CEO, I’m John Doe, head of the fundraising committee at your son’s school. I’m hoping you would help us expand the scholarship fund by chairing the silent auction this year.”

  1. “Thank you for contacting me, John. I’m flattered that you would think of me to take on such an important role.”
  2. “I appreciate all the work you’ve done for our school. I know how important the scholarship students are to you. Leading the fundraising committee is a big job and we are lucky to have you doing it.”
  3. “I also see the value of diversifying our student body. It supports my goals of creating more opportunities for young people in this city. I think it would be very rewarding to spend time on the auction.”
  4. “Considering all the groups and initiatives I have on my plate for the next few months, I am going to pass on this. I just do not see a way to fit it in. I do wish you the best. Thank you for asking and please don’t hesitate to bring another request to me in a few months.”

Separate the request from the relationship.

You can decline a request without rejecting the person.

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3 Minutes at TEDx Tysons