The Art of Saying 'No'

Fred Smith lays out a simple plan for deciding whether to say yes or no.

By Fred Smith

Many Christians read the Bible's command to "redeem the time" and, as a result, spend too many hours simply organizing their time. That is not the intent of Scripture. Time management isn't nearly as important as life management.

Perhaps the greatest life management skill is to develop good reflexes in knowing when to say yes and when to say no. Here are some thoughts on the fine art of saying no.

For many of us, saying no doesn't come naturally. Why?

  1. We want to appear busy. We complain about busyness, but in our fast-track world, we assume we're supposed to be multi-tasking. I see women in traffic putting on makeup. I know others who value high-energy activities and seem to have an ego demand to be busy. It reminds me of the lines: "when in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."
  2. We want to be liked. Some people have a high need to be liked. They spend lots of time doing things they shouldn't simply because they think saying no will alienate someone. If people find they can threaten you with "I won't like you" — no matter how subtly they communicate it — you will lose both their respect and much of your own time.
  3. We want to earn God's favor. How impressed is God by our busyness? I call this "Brownie Point Religion" — trying to obligate God to reward our efforts. Sometimes preachers unintentionally foster this by saying: "You can't out-give God; give Him a dollar and He'll return it tenfold." How about "God has no hands but yours," which not only undermines the concept of salvation by grace but also suggests we can barter with God.

One of the most important pieces of advice that I ever got was "Opportunity is not mandate." If I know who I am, what my gifts are, and what my calling is, I can determine which needs I can say yes to and which needs are best left to others.

We also need to remember that our best efforts don't come from frantic activity but from concentrated attention. Just as Christ went off to pray and Paul spent time in the desert, I make no apologies for scheduling time when I am unavailable. I go off by myself with nothing but two or three things I need to think about. I can't do my best without saying no, at least temporarily, to telephones and interruptions.

Here's a quick checklist I use to help decide whether to say yes or no to a request.

  1. Is this consistent with my priorities? For many years, every January 1 I identify goals for the year. Each morning I ask, "What the most important thing for me to accomplish today?"
  2. Is this within my area of competence? Because I'm a businessman, people assume I know marketing, accounting or research. I don't! If something is outside my area of expertise, I'm quick to say, "I'm sorry, others can help you better than I."
  3. What do your trusted friends say? When in doubt, find someone with whom to talk freely. A colleague had some decisions to make and came to our house to visit. Later he said, "That time really turned me around." Like a racehorse, he needed to get off the track, have a friend walk with him, and cool down.

In declining a request first, be sure your motive is to control your behavior, not to embarrass the other person. We may say no to the proposition, not to the person. At times I will say it this way, "Would you give me permission to say no?" Second, respond in terms of the best interest of the person asking. Once when I was asked to speak somewhere, I said, "You want a good talk, don't you?" Of course. "If I don't do well, I'd embarrass you and myself, and I'm afraid I wouldn't have sufficient time to prepare that week." Finally, defer creatively. For example, I might say, "I'd like to do that, but I will have been out six nights that week. Would you be willing to call my wife and explain this to her?" Humor often helps you defer graciously.

In short, saying yes and saying no is one of the ways we develop maturity and express our value structure. Saying no graciously is a skill worth developing.