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The Power of a Well-Placed No

The Power of a Well-Placed No

If you’re in the early days of your business, you can skip this post. It’s not for you.

Because in the early days of your business, it’s important — for survival’s sake — to say “yes” more often than “no.”

But give it a year or two, and you’ll discover that saying “no” — carefully and strategically — can be the best move you can make for your business.

Why no is the hardest word to say

We know that our businesses will succeed if we aim to serve our customers and build our professional networks.

So we say “yes” to anything that we believe will serve our customers. And we say “yes” to any opportunity to build our networks, whether it’s doing favors, making an introduction, or lending a hand.

But with every opportunity we pursue, we tie up our time. Opportunities have a cost.

What’s “opportunity cost?”

Opportunity cost isn’t easy to measure, but it’s a crucial factor in every business decision we make.

It might be hard to gauge, but you must find a way to weave it into your decisions and discover how to say no when the opportunity cost is too high.

Let’s start off by defining it:

Opportunity cost refers to the value of the alternative decision you could have made.

For example, let’s say you own a web design business. You offer a special discount on simple website designs. Doing so means you bring in five new customers this month. Great work!

But you tie up all your time, and you sell it at a discount. Because your time is booked, you can’t take on the big client someone is going to refer to you next week, who could have represented $35,000 in income over the next six months.

When resources are scarce — and by resources, I mean time, money, and energy — considering opportunity cost will help you make better decisions for your business.

Short-term choices and their long-term consequences

We know that our short-term choices have long-term consequences, but we’re not always able to act on this knowledge.

The first step is to be aware of the opportunity costs of the decisions you make. Let’s look at a simple short-term choice, and how it has long-term consequences.

You like ice cream. You really like ice cream.

So you keep a hefty supply of ice cream tubs in your freezer, and after every lunch and dinner, you eat a nice, big bowl.

Short-term happiness.

Long-term result? You might be carrying around more weight than you’d like.

Some business decisions are like that tempting ice cream.

In the short term, they look great! They represent an influx of money, or recognition, or new contacts.

But when you consider the opportunity cost of the same decisions, you might see a different story.

The scarcity mindset vs. the plentiful mindset

Here’s the thing: If we’re completely honest with ourselves, a lot of our business decisions are driven by fear.

We’re like those chipmunks who stuff their cheeks full of seeds because winter is coming, and we have to prepare.

When we operate from this mindset, we believe that we have to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way, because tomorrow holds nothing for us.

The opposite of this mindset is the view that there will be plenty tomorrow, and there’s no need to hoard.

Like standing on the edge of the ocean, the future brings new opportunities that lap up to the shore and tickle our toes. The opportunities will come if we are present and ready for them.

In my business and life, I’ve found the plentiful mindset works better.

Holding a plentiful mindset means standing in a place of power. You’re saying, “I believe in myself, my abilities, and the possibilities of the future.”

How to say an empowering “no”

I’d like to encourage you to look at the opportunities that come your way this week and consider their costs.

Ask yourself:

  • When you tie up your time and energy, what are you giving up?
  • What’s the price you’ll pay for taking advantage of this opportunity?
  • What are you walking away from, or making impossible by saying yes?

If you don’t like your answers to the questions above, it might be time to say no.

It might be time to stand in a plentiful mindset, and envision the things you’ll be available for if you don’t tie up your time, money, and energy in the latest opportunity.

No: the smallest and most difficult word

If you’re not used to turning down opportunities, saying “no” will feel very uncomfortable at first.

If it helps, use empowering words that will make you feel great about your decision:

  • “This isn’t a fit for me right now.”
  • “I have a policy about not doing ___, so I won’t be able to help you.”
  • “Thanks for reaching out. I am not currently ___.”
  • “I appreciate you thinking about me for this, but I’m not available to help ___.”

What will you say no to this week?

Is this a tough one for you? I want to hear about it in the comments. Talk to me about the best “no” you’ve said, or a tough “no” you have coming up.

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15 thoughts on “The Power of a Well-Placed No”

  1. My brand is based on always keeping my promise. When I took that seriously I realized that it was a near sin to say ‘yes’ to anything I could not wholeheartedly fulfill. From that I realized that saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ and being grudging or even angry as you do the work has a moral component to it. Your performance is likely to be poor and not do you or your client any good.

    Since I deal with many types of clients and most of them cater to the needs of older adults and boomers and caregivers, they also have need to say ‘no’ to the unprofitable. My solution is to have a Golden Rolodex of others who would appreciate a referral, or a government or non profit that can help. Or to make a limited offer to find them help. Yes, I turn away small money to leave room for bigger fish, but then I grow the right way. As an expert in aging, I can tell you this gets easier as you get older and your time becomes more precious.

  2. I think that the “F” word mentioned above (fear) impacts our ability to say “no”.

    For example, the feast or famine cycle has a huge impact on my ability to say “no”. I don’t know very many people who thrived in the recent economic downturn. But most of us took any work we could get just to survive. Now that the economy is improving, I feel the need to grab all of the work I can get fearing that the bad times will soon return.

    I’m also a “pleaser”. And I fear that people will think badly of me if I turn down a project.that’s not the right fit. But like Adriane says in her comment above, I care less what people think the older I get.

    So I’ve recently turned down two projects that weren’t right for me. It was hard saying no. But I feel positive that the right project will come my way. And I’ll have time to give it my full attention.

    • I’ve said no enough times now — and then watched as a much better opportunity came my way — that I now basically count on it happening.

      When you recognize after the fact that it wouldn’t have been possible to take advantage of an amazing opportunity if you hadn’t said no to something else, it drives the point home.

      Bill, I hope your amazing opportunity comes soon!

  3. Hello!

    I love this post! I have said no a few times recently because some clients want to pay bottom dollar for great services. I have a husband and 2 children to feed and writing for $1.00 per 100 words isn’t the best use of my time. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay to say no, and that I am not the only one who says it!

    • You’re welcome, Robbyn. I’m glad to hear it resonated with you! (And you’re right: that’s a ridiculous amount to be paid for writing. What are they thinking?)

  4. I agree with the comments already. It’s interesting that I got the same “kind of article” from another colleague today. Unfortunately, it usually takes some “seasoning” to learn the importance and value of saying no. It’s too expensive to take on the wrong client. I teach a start up business class and we get to this topic very early in the class series. Many find it hard to take at first, but as more experienced speakers come in and sound the same horn, they get the picture. We’ve all been there and learned pretty quickly that it’s too costly to take any client that comes along.

  5. Hi Pamela, thanks for a thought-provoking post! I am at a stage in my business when I need to say no, more often. So I am training my mind into believing that “no” is the new “yes”. Thanks for reminding me that I am on the right track!

    • Good luck, Pedro. The more often you practice turning down opportunities that aren’t a good fit, the easier it will get!

  6. I love the analogy of standing by the ocean with a plentiful mindset. I’ve definitely taken on projects out of fear. I haven’t regretted all of them, but I also know how quickly things can change for the better if you keep plugging away with consistent effort. It takes courage and faith to say no, but the payoffs are worth it!

  7. Thanks, Ms.Pamela, our way of saying no depends up on the resource utilization of the organization, when our utilization is low and have very few in pipeline and less chances of finding new prospects, we tend to say ‘Yes’ by lowering the cost as high as 50%.

    I would love to know your opinion on our take on saying “No” or “Yes” by calculation the current and forecast resource utilization.

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