“This is not a good time for this call,” I told the vendor whose call I’d just accidentally answered.

“But I want you to know how much I’m doing to help you and what I’m doing to resolve these issues and–”

“This is not a good time for this call,” I restated. “I spent an ungodly amount of time trying to resolve account issues that shouldn’t even have been issues yesterday. It took me away from the big stuff I needed to do, stuff I now need to focus on. I cannot spend one more second with you on this right now.”

“You’re not being fair!” she exclaimed. She again launched into an explanation of everything she was doing to help me, clearly having had no acquaintance with the idea of “lizard brain,” the mode people get into when higher brain functioning has shut off and they’re operating at a primal reactive level. I was in lizard brain mode, and no good was going to come from immediate further conversation.

“You’re not hearing me. You’re trying to help you end this call on a warm fuzzy note. It’s not going to happen. The long term results will be much, much better by ending this call and picking up discussion tomorrow.”


“I’m hanging up the phone now. I will call you back tomorrow.” Click.

prof deb

Thinking in terms of and communicating clear expectations was hard when I began down my career path negotiating and administering contracts. I complained to my manager one day about how people just kept haranguing me for things that couldn’t possibly be finished yet. The more time they kept me on the phone for status updates, I explained, the less time I had to actually work on the contracts they wanted done. “Sweetie,” she told me, “they’re going to keep right on doing that if you don’t tell them what to expect and when. You have to tell them, ‘This will take three days, or nine days,’ or whatever it’s gonna take. That way they’ll know to go work on something else, seeing you’ve already mapped out next steps and are working diligently within constraints.”

I was dubious how useful expectation setting could possibly be, but I tried what she suggested. The results were amazing–so much so that bold, underline and italic are all appropriate to demonstrate just how amazing! When I started telling people, “These are the next steps, and an overview of when they’ll probably happen,” they stopped pestering me for daily and sometimes hourly updates. I got a lot happier and a lot less stressed on the job. With more time for work and less time spent on redundant conversations, I got my work done quicker. The impact was so immensely positive, I started setting expectations in my personal life.

In the case of this particular vendor phone call, I briefly contemplated sending the vendor representative a blog I’d written on hearing “no” after I’d repeatedly failed to hear my own son’s “no.” Repeatedly.

Rarely will things go better because someone exerts force–no matter how prettily worded–to change someone else’s mind, right now, after they’ve said no.

Sacrificing long term peace for the low potential of short term gain benefits no one. It’s not only unwise but damaging, sometimes profoundly.

I wish more people understood this, in and outside the workplace.

I wish we all were better hearing and saying no.

  1. September 19, 2014 at 5:35 am

    I am not good at “no” – or at setting clear explanations. But reading this, I want to try harder, because I definitely want some of those amazing results.

    • September 19, 2014 at 5:41 am

      It was so, so hard at the beginning, I won’t lie. I found little ways I could practice (e.g., “no, we can’t have this meeting now, but this is when we can have it” instead of “no, I will not give you hourly updates on your project”). Those little bits of practice slowly built into much greater comfort.

      Now I still occasionally have trouble setting expectations, but I walk myself through the benefits and do it anyway. I’m always so glad for the end results that come with pushing through the discomfort. Practice does make better, and the better that comes from this practice is enormous … so very worth it!

      I thank goodness every day for the wrong turn that led my old manager into my life. The kindness with which she imparted her wisdom have made every aspect of my life better. I hope someday I am able to emulate her warmth while saying even the hardest of things.

  2. Jen
    September 19, 2014 at 6:10 am

    I’m not very good with, “no” myself. I hear it but it’s hard to say it. I like the idea of mapping out the next steps and glad that helped to give you some peace!

    • September 21, 2014 at 8:28 am

      It’s made such a difference! While most really do listen when you say a clear “no,” there are a small handful of people who really, really don’t want to hear it no matter how clearly it’s articulated. I’m much more at peace with that now that I know (i) how to recognize those people and steer far, far clear of them (or, in the workplace, adopt other strategies to ensure they’re clear brute force won’t work) and (ii) it’s not my responsibility to make them hear, just to speak what needs be spoken. What’s done with that is out of my hands.

  3. September 19, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Great post! I wonder why saying “No” is so difficult, when ultimately it benefits everyone. I guess because people don’t want to hear it.

    • September 21, 2014 at 8:31 am

      It really does benefit everyone. More and more recently, I’ve seen a trend of thought wherein people decide that reality is what they want it to be–almost as if, Secret-style, they can change actual truth with their perception of it. That kind of thinking does everyone else around the thinker a huge disservice, and doesn’t do much benefit to the thinker himself since he’s blinded to effecting actual change. Gavin de Becker calls people who deny the truth and call their perceptions reality “deniers,” which to me is one of the least desirable things to be. I’d rather be in a room full of ventriloquist dummies than one full of deniers, no joke. I want to know the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear, and thus be able to work at changing the harder truths.

  4. September 19, 2014 at 6:46 am

    I have always been terrible at ‘No’. It is the hardest thing in the world to say and hear. This was a great reminder. I love ‘lizard brains’.

  5. September 19, 2014 at 7:07 am

    “No” is easy for me on the phone … much more difficult in person … but you’re right … you tried and they didn’t listen!

  6. September 19, 2014 at 7:15 am

    At work I am very good at “no”. I have no problems letting people know that “no, it can’t be completed until xyz date”, or “contractually we have 2 weeks, and while our goal is to get it to you earlier, I cannot make that commitment based on our production schedule”. And it makes life so much easier!

    At home, totally different story! 🙂

  7. September 19, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Like many others, I could always say no at work, but I do have some difficulty saying it in my personal life.

    Your vendor was very persistent and doing more talking than listening!

    • September 19, 2014 at 7:51 am

      It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t told me she was trying to meet my needs. That was it for me. No, I’d told her my needs and she was overriding what I’d said in favor of her interpretation of my needs. Oy vey!

  8. September 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    No is a word which punches well above its weight. A word that people find difficult to hear, and one that I find difficult to say. A work in progress.

  9. September 19, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I think that I have become so much better at saying “no” in whatever form it takes when I need to….I’m definitely working on hearing the word or words that mean the same from my kiddo. Being a 5th grader with some ‘tweenish’ tude coming forth, I’m finding that listening to her is sometimes hard for me because my blood is boiling from the WAY it’s being said. Work in progress for sure! XOXO-Kasey

  10. September 19, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I get so frustrated with people who won’t tell me no! I’m a pretty direct, upfront person, so if I want something I tend to ask for it, and if I think something’s a good idea I tend to suggest it. And I can come across strong (try not to, but I can’t help it if everyone else is a weenie, can I???) I can NEVER understand why people say yes, then halfway down the track I’ve proposed they start bitching that they never wanted to do this anyway. For crying out loud – Just. Say. No. Or say yes, and do it. People who won’t say no invariably resort to manipulation, whining and guilt-tripping. Nobody has time for that!

  11. September 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Sounds like you persevered thunderously, way to go. If only more people would read your post to learn 🙂

  12. September 19, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    My immediate first response to just about anything is “No.” I’m pretty sure I got it from my dad. People who know me know that I will probably change it to a “Yes” when I’m ready; on my schedule. People who don’t know me either try to sway me right away, which simply results in a more steadfast “No”, or they take that original “No” at face value and inevitably deem me a bitch.

  13. September 20, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    You are so right, especially when lizard brain mentality kicks in. But your point to set clear expectations is so right. As a teacher that is the foundation of any class. But just because we set parameters and expectations in all sorts of arenas does not mean they help all the time. But at least we can feel better about screaming “NO!” when we know the expectations have been set! Provocative post, as usual. Thanks.

  14. Twindaddy
    September 24, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Saying “no” is something I definitely need to improve upon.

  15. October 2, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Beautifully stated and exemplified – and wonderful advice for others dealing with similar circumstances. I’m not sure why anyone would not understand that this was a bad time and you would speak with them the next day – that should immediately end the call on a good note to be continued. This seems to be another boundary issue – and you showed more patience than I would have. Great advice for handling status updates – thank you for sharing this!

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