1 Big idea to think about

  • Learning to deliver a graceful no is one of the most important skills to master when becoming an Essentialist. It allows you to focus your time, energy, and commitments on the things that really matter.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Choose one of the techniques discussed in this episode and add it to your personal “No Repertoire”.
  • Practice using this technique the next time you need to say no.

3 Questions to ask

  • How skilled am I at saying no on a scale of 1-10?
  • What is my biggest challenge when it comes to saying no?
  • How did I feel the last time I said no to something that wasn’t essential?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The power of the right no spoken at the right time (1:21)
  • Having the courage to say no (5:13)
  • How saying no helps you avoid missing what’s most important (7:07)
  • Why it’s hard to choose what’s essential over what’s nonessential (10:47)
  • How you can build respect by saying no (12:34)
  • 6 guidelines that will help you learn to say no (16:25)
  • 3 specific ways you can say no gracefully (23:04)
  • The value of the “slow yes and the quick no” (26:01)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

How to Say No to “Grabbing Coffee” by Jenny Taitz and Greg McKeown

Connect with Greg McKeown

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Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:00 

Welcome, everyone to the What’s Essential podcast. I am your host, Greg McEwen. And I am just so excited to be with you today because this is a subject that is relevant I’m sure for you right now. But before we do that, let’s take a moment. How, how are you feeling today? Take a deep breath. Be here. 


How are you doing? At saying no? Do you struggle to say no? I do. And if you do, then today is for you. Because today you will learn how to say no gracefully, especially to the nonessential. 


You will learn why it matters so much, some guidelines for saying no gracefully, and some specific language you can use to do this more gracefully. 


So let’s think about the power of a graceful now. Let’s go back for a moment because no is a really nontrivial word. The right no spoken at the right time, can change the course of history? 


Let’s take a remarkable moment one of the turning points one could argue in modern history, perhaps the most famous know of our times. Rosa Parks quiet but resolute, total refusal to give up her seat on the segregated Montgomery bus at exactly the right moment coalesced into forces that propelled the civil rights movement. As Parks put it, when the bus driver saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up. And I said, No, I’m not. 


Contrary to popular belief, her courageous act did not grow out of a particularly assertive tendency or personality in general. In fact, when she was made a secretary of the President of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, she explained I was the only woman there and they needed a secretary and I was too timid to say no. 


So rather, her decision on the bus grew out of a deep conviction about what deliberate choice she wanted to make. In that moment. When the bus driver ordered her out of her seat, she said, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night. She didn’t know how her decision would spark a movement, with reverberations around the world. But she did know her own mind, her own heart she knew even as she was being arrested. In her words, it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind. Avoiding that humiliation was worth the risk of incarceration. Indeed, it was to her essential. 


It’s true, and hopefully unlikely that we’ll ever find ourselves facing a situation like the one faced by Rosa Parks yet. Surely, we can be inspired by her. We can think of her when we need the courage to say no. We can remember her strength of conviction when we need to stand our ground in the face of social pressure to capitulate to something that’s non essential, or maybe something that’s just wrong. 


Have you yourself ever felt a tension between what you feel is right? And what someone is pressuring you to do? Have you ever felt the conflict between your internal conviction and an external action? Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or a request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbor, family member for fear of disappointing them? 


Of course you have and if you have you’re not alone, you’re navigating these moments with courage and grace is one of the most important skills to master in becoming an essentialist and and one of the most challenging. 


When I first wrote essentialism, I didn’t have any intent to write something about courage.But the deeper I’ve looked into the subject of essentialism, the more clearly I have seen that courage is key to the process of elimination. 


Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less, it’s just lip service. It’s just the stuff of one more dinner party conversation. It’s skin deep. Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the right things that matter most and many people do, but to see people who have the courage to live it, it’s rare. 


One of the people who lives it in my life really is my wife, Anna, is so impressive to see her willing to make trade offs that other people aren’t making, to say yes, when other people are saying no to say no. When other people are saying yes. But that’s for another day. 


I say all of this about the challenge of saying no without judgment, because we have good reasons to fear saying no, I mean, certainly I worry that I’ll miss out on a great opportunity. I’m worried myself scared of rocking the boat, sometimes stirring things up burning bridges. I am sure you can’t bear the thought of disappointing someone we respect and like. And none of this makes us bad people. I mean, it’s a very natural part of being human yet as hard as it can be to say no to someone failing to do so can cause us to miss out on something even more important. 


Some of you may remember this story or have heard it before. It’s a story of Cynthia, who once told me a story about a time when her father had made plans to take her out on a night in San Francisco. 12 year old Cynthia and her father had been planning the date. For months. They had a whole itinerary. They’re going to take a trolley car to Chinatown, see Alcatraz, catch a flick, grab food from the street vendors and then go back to the hotel where they’d be staying in order to order room service, eat ice cream sundae, and maybe watch another movie. The plan was for her father to attend a conference during the day then in the evening, she would meet him and they would commence their date. 


And this was all going according to plan until as a father was leaving the convention center. He ran into an old college friend and a business associate. It had been years since they’d seen each other and Cynthia watched as they embraced enthusiastically. His friend said, I’m so glad you’re doing some work for our company. Now. When Lois and I found out about it, we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you in of course Cynthia here to get a spectacular seafood dinner down at the wharf. 


In that moment, Cynthia was worried. She could see her daydreams of Crawley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporating in an instant. She hated seafood. She could just imagine how bored she’d be listening to the adults talk all night. But a father immediately said, But Not tonight. I have a whole evening planned with my daughter. And with that they grabbed each other’s hands and rushed out of the door and continued with that evening exactly as they planned. 


As it happens, Cynthia’s father was the management thinker, Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And he passed away just weeks before Cynthia told me the story. So it was with deep emotion. She recalled that evening in San Francisco. His decision, she said, just meant everything. 


In fact, it’s interesting to note that it’s been coming up to 10 years since Stephen Covey passed away. And in that time, I have become friends with Cynthia. And she has spent that 10 years completing a book project that she started with her late father. She has continued that legacy. And we’ll have her on the podcast here. Once that book comes out. It’s a powerful book, The Last Great idea that Stephen Covey had in his life. Stephen Covey was one of the most respected and widely read business thinkers of this generation. He was a true essentialist. Not only did he routinely teach essentialist principles, like the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.


And not only did he do that to leaders and heads of state all over the world He lived them. And in this moment of living them with his daughter, he made a memory which literally has outlasted his lifetime. 


So seen with some perspective, his decision seems obvious. But many in his shoes would have accepted the friend’s invitation for fear of seeming rude, ungrateful, are passing up a rare opportunity to dine with an old friend. 


And so why is it so hard in the moment to choose what is essential over what is non essential? I mean, surely one of the reasons is as simple as the innate fear of social awkwardness. I mean, we as humans are wired deeply, biologically, to want to get along with others. After all, 1000s of years ago, when we all lived in tribes, hunter gatherers, our survival depended on it. But while conforming to what people in a group expect of us what psychologists of course, called normative conformity, is no longer a matter of life and death, the desire is still deeply ingrained in us. So that’s why whether it’s an old friend who invites you to dinner, or a boss who asks you to take on an important and high profile project, or a neighbor who begs you to help with the PTA bake sale. The very thought of saying No, literally brings us physical discomfort. You know, our spidey sense goes off, we feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. We’re worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions can sometimes muddle our clarity. They can distract us from the reality that we can either say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it sometimes for days, weeks, or even years into the future. 


The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and get gracefully. Once we do we find that often our fears of disappointing or angering others is at least exaggerated. Done Right? There are people actually respect as more in my own journey to becoming an essentialist. I have found it almost universally true. Not always, but almost always that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say N0. 


Peter Drucker think of him, in my view, at least the father of modern management thinking, but also someone who was a master at the art of the graceful No, he was once asked to participate in a famous professors new book on creativity. And Drucker’s response was so interesting that the author quoted it verbatim in his book. Here’s the response. Drucker wrote, I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14, for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I’ve learned much from it. But my dear professor, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I’m told I am creative. I don’t know what that means. I just keep on plodding. I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity, in which I believe whereas I do not necessarily believe in creativity is to have a very big wastepaper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours. productivity in my experience consists of not doing anything that helps the work of other people, but to spend all one’s time on the work the good Lord has fitted one to do and to do well. 


I mean, I don’t even know when I think of that fully what I think of it. But the idea that we’re not saying no, out of selfishness, but saying no, because we have a mission, something that we came here to do something that we were built to do. At least that’s Peter Drucker’s view of this certainly captures one’s imagination. And mean Peter Drucker is on record as having said people are effective because they say no, I’ll say it again. People are effective because they say no. I’ll add it’s not to say no for the sake of saying no, that would be something different. That would be like an idea called no ism. But in order to say yes to something that is more important, that’s something that that is vital. 


A non essentialist, by contrast says yes, due to social awkwardness and pressure all the time. He says yes automatically without thinking, often in pursuit of that rush that we get from having please someone in the moment. But the essentialist knows following the rush comes the pang of regret. He knows we will soon feel bullied and resent for both at the other person and ourselves. Eventually, we will wake up to the unpleasant reality that something more important must now be sacrificed to accommodate this new commitment. 


Of course, the point is not saying no carte blanche. The point is to say no to the non essential so that we can say yes to the things that really matter. It is to say no, frequently and gracefully and smilingly to everything, but what is truly essential? So how do we learn to say no gracefully? 


Let me offer a few guidelines, followed by a specific set of scripts for delivering a graceful no guideline one, separate the decision from the relationship, how that’s so important. When people ask us to do something, we can confuse the relationship and the request as the same thing. And sometimes they it’s so interconnected, we forget the denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we divide the decision from the relationship, can we find a way to make a clear decision? And then separately, find the courage and compassion to communicate it? Get clear on the decision first? 


And then you might want to use what an entrepreneur once said to me, white glove elimination. It doesn’t mean that because the answer’s no, you have to say no bluntly and rudely and damage everyone involved. There might be a long though, there might be a way to, to navigate this so that you can still keep the relationship intact. But that’s not the same as saying yes. 


The second guideline is saying no, gracefully doesn’t mean using the word no. essentialist choose no more often than they say no. Let me say that again. essentialist choose No. More often than they say, No. There may be a time when the most graceful way to say no is to simply say a blunt, no. But whether it’s I’m flattered that you thought of me, but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth, or I would very much like to but I’m over committed. There are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no. And later, I’m going to give you some more specific ways to do that gracefully. 


The third guideline, focus on the trade off. The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost. In other words, the value of what we’re 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 out of a clear, but unstated calculation of the trade off. 


Fourth guideline, remind yourself that everyone is selling something that I’m not advocating that you suddenly become really cynical about people. I don’t mean to imply people shouldn’t be trusted. I’m simply saying that everyone is in inverted commas selling something, an idea of viewpoint and opinion in exchange for your time. And simply being aware of that, that we are in that sense being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it. 


The fifth guideline, make your peace with the fact that saying no often requires trading popularity for respect. When you say no, there is usually a short term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and they don’t get it, their immediate reaction, maybe annoyance or disappointment or even anger, as certainly people are vulnerable in that moment. So this downside is clear that the potential upside is less obvious because when the initial annoyance or disappointment wears off,

often respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows People that our time is highly valuable. It’s one of the things that distinguishes the professional from the amateur. 


So a case in point for this is when the graphic designer Paul Rand, had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs. It was after Jobs was looking for a logo for the company next. And he asked round whose work included the magnificent logos for IBM ups and Ron, Westinghouse, ABC, to come up with a few options. But Rand didn’t want to come up with a few options. He wanted to design just one option. Rand said, No, I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me and you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people, but I will solve the problem the best way I know how do you use it or not? That’s up to you. I can’t believe he said that to Steve. Right. So not surprisingly, Rand solve the problem and created the jewel logo jobs wanted. 


But the real lesson here is the effect. rands push back had on jobs who later sat around, he is one of the most professional people I have ever worked with, in the sense that he had thought through all the formal relationship between a client and a professional such as himself, who ran took a risk when he said no, he bet a short term popularity loss for a long term gain in respect and it paid off essentialist accept they cannot be popular with everyone all the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably and gracefully can come at a short term social cost, but part of living the way of the essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run. 


Sixth, remember that a clear no can be more graceful than a vague or non committal? Yes. As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this situation knows a clearer I am going to pass on this is better than not getting back to someone or stringing them along for some non committal answer, like I will try to make this work or I might be able to win, you know, you can’t being vague is not the same as being graceful. And delaying the eventual no often makes things much harder than they need to be and the recipient that much more resentful. 


So as I said before, an essentialist doesn’t say no, occasionally, it is part of their regular repertoire. to consistently say no with grace, then it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. And let me share a few to add to your no repertoire. Don’t be limited to these, there’s so many ways of doing it pay attention to how other people negotiate the non essentials in their lives as well. 


The first is the awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. You use it as a tool in a way when a request comes to you. And obviously this only works in some kind of in person situation, just pause for a moment, count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void. 


Number two is the soft No. This is perfect for when somebody invites you to go get coffee. In fact, it’s beyond our conversation today. But I did just co author a piece called how to say no to grabbing coffee. It’s a corded piece with Jenny Tate’s and it’s in Harvard Business Review. We’ll put it in the show notes. But that goes into some details more details than I’ve ever done on that specific question. And there’s some lovely additions there that you may want to check out. 


Email is a good way to start practicing their soft no or the no but because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft, you know to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find the distance of email, you know, can reduce the fear of awkwardness in these you know in this way. 


Okay, a third specific thing to add to your no repertoire. And this is such a simple idea. It’s just let me check my calendar and get back to you. That’s 10 words that can seriously change your life. 


One leader I know found her time being hijacked by people all day. She was a classic non essentialist she was capable. She was smart and she was totally unable to say You know, and as a result she soon became everybody’s favorite go to person. People would run up to her and say, Could you help with X project and meaning to be a good citizen? She just said yes, but soon she felt burdened with all these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase. Let me check my calendar and get back to you. It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her decisions, rather than to be rushed into a yes. 


When she was asked Kay krill, the CEO of an inc, you know, aka and Taylor and loft, the clothing retailers used to have a terrible time saying no to social invitations. As a result, she would end up at networking events, she had no interest in attending, she would find herself going to office parties and regretting it the moment she got there. Then one day, one of her mentors came to her and told her she had to learn to jettison the things and people out of a life that just don’t matter. And how doing so would allow her to put 100% of her energy into the things that had meaning for her. That advice liberated her. Now she is able to pick and choose with practice politely declining, an invitation has become easy for her care explains, I say no, very easily because I know what is important to me. I only wish I learned how to do that earlier in my life. 


And that’s it. That’s the idea saying no. is its own leadership capability. It’s not just a peripheral skill. As in with any ability, we start with limited experiences, and we are most of us novices at No. So then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes, we learn from them, we develop more skills we keep practicing and after a while we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal. And in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We eventually can handle almost any request from almost anyone with grace with dignity. 


Tom Friel, a friend of mine, the former CEO of Heidrick and struggles once said to me, we need to learn the slow Yes, and the quick No. It’s hard to say it better than that. 


So let’s summarize this a non essentialist avoid saying no. To avoid feeling the social awkwardness and pressure. And as a result, they say yes to almost everyone in almost everything without really thinking about it. And essentialist dares to say no, firmly, resolutely, and gracefully. And so they say yes to only those things that really matter. 


So we’ve come to that time again, the end of the show, and if you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of effortless make it easier to do what matters most. Just send a photo of your review to info at Greg mcewen.com That I N fo at MC K EOW n.com. And remember, if you only do one thing from today’s episode, ask yourself what’s essential and say no to everything else. As Ernest Hemingway said courage, his grace under pressure. So, enjoy the rest of your day. Enjoy this week. Enjoy this precious, wonderful life that you have. And tune in next week to hear another episode of the Watts essential podcast


Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Greg McKeown


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