The Fine Art of Saying No

imageRecently, my wife and I have been watching DVDs of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I really liked that show when it was on; it was funny and the characters seemed like the kind of people you might actually meet. My favorite character was Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner). I like the things Lou said and I liked the way he said them. I really liked the way he could say “no!” Lou didn’t beat around the bush, he didn’t debate or discuss or consider stupid ideas, he simply said “no” and that was that. He was the perfect contrast to the ever-considerate Mary Richards.

A few weeks ago on one of my technical blogs, I made some nice comments about a product that we use at work. Last week, I received an email thanking me for the comment, but it was a minister’s thank you; the kind that ends with a request for more money.

We really appreciate what you said about our company and our products…We’re collecting testimonials for our product…that we can put on our website.”

This is when I wished I could channel the spirit of Lou Grant and reply with a gruff, firm, unapproachable “no!” The kind of “no” that has an implied “get away from me” tacked on. Instead, I fell back on the disclaimer Du Jour these days “My blog is personal. A testimonial would be official and I would have to clear something like that with our legal department.” Nothing says “no” like the prospect of involving a lawyer.

Back in the 90’s, I decided to attend a public meeting held by our local Superintendent of Schools. My wife urged me not to go – “you’re going to end up on some committee.” I felt it was important to understand something about the person in charge of the school system where our daughter was attending high school, so I decided to go. On my way out, my wife pleaded “please don’t speak.

I went, I spoke and I ended up on a committee. Specifically, I ended up on the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee. It wasn’t a bad gig, I liked the Superintendent, I thought she had good ideas and she seemed receptive to the input of others. We met once a month for about two hours.

At one of our meetings, she invited us to attend a kick-off meeting for the school system’s strategic planning project. This was to be an all-day meeting and I might have said “no” if it she hadn’t mentioned that it was being held at the Connecticut Fire Academy. The training facility was fairly new, and there were no public tours at the time and I really wanted to see inside the building. The keynote speaker began her opening remarks by saying something like this:

Welcome to this first meeting of the strategic planning commission and thank you for making a commitment to this multi-year effort. Your presence speaks to the value you place on education and the young people in our town…” I looked at the guy next to me and queried “multi-year?” He just sighed, also clearly someone unable to say “no.”

One committee led to another, the Technology Committee, Website Committee, School-to-Career Committee, Principal Selection Committee, on and on until finally, my daughter graduated and I was relinquished from most, but only after serving on the Project Graduation committee.

Occasionally, I can muster up the emotional energy to say “no.” I said “no!” quickly and emphatically when I was asked to run for an open seat on the School Board. I said “no” the way Lou Grant would have said “no” – I had been to School Board meetings and I couldn’t imagine sitting in front of those audiences. I was told: “you will be unopposed” – there’s a good sign; apparently everybody else was able to say “no.”

The easiest time I had saying “no” was after I had asked a friend to speak at an event. We had a guest speaker lined up, but we wanted a second speaker to compliment him. The guy I was asking would have been perfect, but he was unavailable. He recommended someone else and if you’ve ever tried to arrange speakers for events, you know that you follow every lead. The guy asked about the event and then began arguing to become the headliner.

I’m a keynote speaker; I can get that room jumping. I’m the guy you want leading off. I’ll start with some comments on…”

I explained that we had a lead speaker and that we wanted people to talk about a specific subject. We went back and forth for about five minutes before I pictured myself as Lou Grant, in his office with Ted Baxter asking for a raise. “No. This isn’t going to work. I’m sure you’re a great speaker, but you’re not the right speaker for this event.”

I said it, but I said it more like Mary – like I cared about this guy’s feelings.

8 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Saying No

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  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I’m glad you didn’t say “no” to all the education committees. The school system needs dedicated parents and community members who are willing to stay for multiple years! Kudos to you for your high level of involvement.


    1. Thanks! I would guess that it’s the same in every school district, but in ours, once you showed a willingness to participate, everybody wanted a piece of you. It worked out well because all the committees ended up having a similar makeup, so there was consistency too.


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