an illustration of a man and a woman having a conversation with word bubbles

how to say no without saying “no”

August 5, 2020

written by
Rex Vokey

Or, how to properly set expectations.


no, I’m not talking about consent or voting.

I’m talking about when someone wants you to do something for them. Or more specifically, when someone wants your team/company/business to do something outside of what you agreed to do. Can you just say “no”? Yes. Do you just say “no”? No.


how was this missed?

My first go-to when someone is asking for something outside of current expectations (aka project scope) or something that doesn’t fit the strategy is to talk about it. In other words, listen and find out what problem they’re trying to solve. We normally scope very carefully so I also like to know why this wasn’t immediately obvious at the beginning.

It’s pretty rare (though it does happen) that someone’s just requesting something for the sake of requesting something. There’s usually a reason behind it and we need to uncover the reason behind what they’re asking.


how can we solve this?

Once I fully understand what they want, I have to think. I mentally sit back and review solutions. The key here is to focus on solutions, not if they fit within a timeline or budget or if we need to add more resources to something. You need to be flexible, open to change, and curious about solutions without automatically throwing up roadblocks.

Then I start talking about ways we can do it, guiding the conversation through current expectations on both our end and theirs, then possibly adjusting expectations as necessary. This is often called the “yes, and….” methodology.


how do we fit this in?

If something is possible but out of scope, say that. Of course there are times that it’s not possible, then you need to say that too. The key thing is you need to explain why and offer up alternatives. But don’t just say “that’s not possible.” You want to say something like “this platform/team/software can’t do that specifically, but here’s how we could accomplish the same thing a different way…”


we’re still being direct.

Don’t interpret any of this as a means of skirting around a tough subject. It may seem counterintuitive, but you still need to be very direct and transparent. Always start with how to solve it and then figure out how to fit it in. We want the best product we can possibly create right?


the point is to get things done.

At the end, you have listened to the client which makes them feel respected. You have to remember, they don’t actually know what you do. That’s why they hired you in the first place. Next, you’ve worked with them to mutually come up with a process to get them what they want and everyone now has a stake in the agreement. Then you hold your ground on scope. This is a business decision, not a personal one so don’t take it personally. You’ve done your job and they need to do theirs, which is often trying to wrangle extra scope 🙂

In summary, I advocate not being a “no” person, but rather set, update, and adjust expectations as you go. All with the core purpose of getting the task or project done. Keep going for that end goal, because when it comes down to it, you’re all on the same team.