The Art of "No"

07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why responding deftly to demands for your input, work and influence is key to your career.

All day long you have to say No at work. No to demands on your time. No to invitations to meetings. No to requests for your influence.

The rise of e-mail, cell phones and texting has exponentially increased this threat. But it has been a challenge for successful people for a long time. In the diary John Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, he summed it up pretty well: "No mail today except requests. That's about all my mail is any more. People who want things. What more can I expect?"

As the authors of a book called I Hate People! we've thought deeply about how to say No. Our conclusion: Most people working today need a few simple methods for juggling requests and demands.

All too often workers simply blow off those who inquire. We have a name for that brand of office hostility: The Non-Response. We don't advise it when dealing with co-workers, bosses or clients.

People engage in a variety of levels of Non-Response. Here are six of the most common you're likely to run into during your day:

1. The Pseudo Response
"Got it." It's really not much of a response, but at least they've let you know they received something.

2. The Deflected Response
They don't answer the question.

3. The Assisted Non-Response
These used to be called Secretaries. They are no longer human. They seldom deliver a real reply. They never give up their master.

4. The Courtesy Non-Response
This is when they kill you with kindness, replacing real communication with flowers and champagne. And they're never in when you call to say thanks.

5. The Smoothy Non-Response
They're all talk and no action. It's only after the call or e-mail that you realize they're not going to do a damn thing.

6. The WTF Non-Response
Otherwise known as backing someone off. Bullying. Belligerence. Loud. Lot's of adjectives and CAPITAL LETTERS!!!

Except for number 1 -- the Pseudo Non-Response -- avoid these behaviors at all costs. Not only will they not make you popular with co-workers or clients but they often will come back to bite you. If someone has a reasonable inquiry they deserve a reasonable response.

Don't join the millions of Non-Responders. Instead learn to manage these inquiries with the sophistication of an air traffic controller. As you plow through your frenetic day, gently push inquiries off your plate that drain your energy and time.

Start with The Three D's -- Delegate, Delay and Deny

Delegate is exactly what it sounds like. Find someone who can answer the question and solve the problem. Pass the baton cleanly. Congratulations, it's off your plate!

Delay is more complicated than it sounds. Give yourself the time that we often forget exists in this instantaneous world. Unless something is truly urgent it can usually wait until morning or at least the afternoon. This will give you time to Delegate. You may also decide that you need more time and thus enlist the two-step. That's where you respond that you're slammed, and say you'll get back to them in a few days or next week.

Deny comes in many flavors. When No is really "NO," shorter is best. It's hard to beat a simple, "No, that won't work" or the more direct, "No." One of our Hollywood friends often uses the long form Deny when he doesn't want to make an enemy in Tinsletown (which is always). When sent a script he knows he won't have time to read, he tactfully responds, "Having me read it wouldn't be the best use of your time."

Compare that to the effect of a surly Non-Response. The person being ignored e-mails repeatedly or calls -- or just hates you. That's not a result that you or your company needs.

Of course, as your status rises within your company, there is another factor to consider. A polite "No" can often be the best way to get to the perfect "Yes"...on your terms.

For instance, someone's offering you a deal without the financial incentives or resources you deserve. That's the opening to make a haiku short "No." Thank them for their interest. If they want you, they will be back with a sweeter offer.

That's called "The Art of No." Play it right and you'll be saying "Yes" to opportunities that count.

Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.