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The Diplomatic Way to Say “No”

In the life of a new associate at a medium or large law firm, it is not uncommon to sacrifice time with friends and family in favor of working long hours each day, working into the evening or on weekends at times when looming deadlines approach, and work with multiple superiors (partners and senior associates). In addition to the challenge of learning new aspects of the law, managing your time to complete the volume of work assigned to you, and trying to maintain your personal life in some fashion, the challenge of saying “no” becomes one of the most common sources of stress among new associates.

Many feel that there are real barriers to saying “no” which often include concerns about how the partner or senior associate will think of them as less willing to help, having their reputation in the firm damaged, or being punished in some way (not being promoted, being left out of preferred projects, etc.). While there may indeed be consequences to saying “no” outright, often the fear of those potential consequences prevents associates from saying “no” in any way. Yet, the fact of the matter is that we constantly say “no” without even realizing it. Each time we say “yes” to something, we are saying “no” to the alternatives. If I say yes to eating pizza for dinner, I automatically have said no to eating sushi or other possible cuisines for tonight (assuming that I don’t mix sushi with my pizza).

Another important aspect to be aware of is the impact that saying “yes” to everything has on your work. The fact of the matter is this; no matter how efficient you think you are, multi-tasking is a myth and you slow your productivity when you try to do two things at once. By taking on more work than you have time for, you sacrifice relaxation, sleep, and the much-needed recharge you require when working long hours. Not to mention that your mental functioning and processing speed diminish considerably when you are tired or sleep deprived. So, pulling “all-nighters” might sound impressive, but they are quite inefficient as errors increase, thinking slows, and memory diminishes. Yet, despite knowing these facts, many associates feel that the potential consequences of saying “no” are worse than the potential problems caused by working while sleep deprived.

When an associate is asked (or told) to take on a large piece of work that would demand immediate time and attention, that associate is saying “no” to the current work they have in front of them by saying “yes” to the new request. If the work is coming from the same partner, the associate can ask that partner to can give directives about which work is the priority and which can wait until later. However, if the work is coming from different partners (or senior associates), it can feel as though you are between a rock and a hard place as any decision you make will inevitably upset someone. So, what is one to do? Enter diplomacy.

The key to using diplomacy to say “no” is to have the person hearing your “no” feel that your relationship with them is as strong, if not stronger, after hearing your “no”. Specifically, the goal would be to have the partner or senior associate feel one of three things: 1.) They feel as though the “no” was their decision, 2.) They feel they agree with you saying “no” at this time, or 3.) They understand why you are saying “no” even though they disagree or want you to say “yes”. While no outcome can be guaranteed, the following steps can help you practice diplomacy.

Step 1: When an assignment is presented to you, first ask for more details and ask clarifying questions so you fully understand what is being asked of you (when is the deadline, how important is the project, what skills are required of this project, etc.). Step 2: Validate the importance of the project by showing that you understand why this work needs to get done. Step 3: Ask for time to consider the project before answering so you can evaluate your availability, ask your supervisor for guidance as to what other work can be postponed, or to see if others in the firm can help with skills that they are more equipped with. If the person presenting the work is the one responsible for supervising you, you can describe to them your current workload and directly ask for their help in prioritizing your work.

There are multiple ways of saying “no” without the “no” sounding like a rejection, opposition, disinterest, or laziness. Instead of saying “no” outright, useful phrases might include, “I can help out with that work once I finish up my current project, which will require all of my time until its deadline Monday,” “I would like to take that on and get experience working on that project if it can wait until I finish the brief that is due tomorrow,” or “I have three things that are due tomorrow, is there anyone else who can take one of those things off my plate so I can focus on taking this new project on?”

In this way, saying “no” can be heard as a group decision, others get a sense of your workload, you demonstrate your ability to prioritize and evaluate your work (and what it takes to get it completed), and even if you cannot help with a new project, the partner or senior associate feels like you have an interest in helping. Saying, “I can help later” is another way of saying, “I cannot help right now.” It all depends on how you phrase it.

So, practice saying “no” diplomatically and see what an impact that makes.


Shawn Healy, PhD

This post was updated July 18, 2018, and was originally printed in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly January 14, 2016.


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