better & Co.


All day every day, most of us are fielding requests. The asks are formal and informal, large and small. They’re not just from direct bosses and teammates but also from “internal customers” all over the organizational chart. Add to this the demands of external stakeholders, of family, friends, and acquaintances, and sometimes even of complete strangers. You can’t say yes to everyone and everything and do all of it well. When you take on too many or the wrong things, you waste time, energy, and money and distract yourself from what’s really important. You must therefore learn when and how to say both no and yes. A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully, and increase your influence (

Asses The Ask

When you say yes or no to a request, you’re deciding where to invest your personal resources, so give the choice the same careful consideration. That starts with insisting on a well-defined ask. Sometimes the ask is sloppy, so you misunderstand: It sounds like more or less than it is, or it sends you off in the wrong direction. That’s why you ought to help yourself and the asker by getting critical details about the request. You should ask questions and take notes, clarifying every aspect of the request, including the costs and benefits. Essentially, you’re helping the asker fine-tune the request into a proposal.

  • What is today’s date and time? (This will help you track how the project evolves).

  • Who is the asker

  • What is the deliverable being requested? Be specific.

  • By when does it need to be accomplished

  • What resources will be required?

  • Who is the source of authority on this issue, and do you have that person or group’s approval?

  • What are the possible benefits?

  • What are the obvious and hidden costs?

A Well-Reasoned No

A thoughtful no, delivered at the right time, can be a huge boon, saving time and trouble for everybody down the road. A good no is all about timing and logic. You should say no to things that are not allowed, cannot be done, or that, on balance, should not be done. It called the “no gates”, which divide initiatives into distinct phases and then subject each to a “go, no go” decision.

The 1st Gate

The first gate is the easiest to understand. If there are procedures, guidelines, or regulations that prohibit you from doing something—or someone has already made it clear that this category of work is off-limits to you, at least for now—then you simply give a straight no. What do you say? “I don’t have discretion here. This request violates policy/rules/law. So you really shouldn’t make it at all. Perhaps I can help you reframe your request within the rules so that it can then be considered.”

The 2nd Gate

Turning people down at the second gate is also straightforward (at least sometimes). If the request isn’t feasible, you say, “I simply can’t do it”. What if you don’t currently have the experience and skills to handle the request quickly and confidently—but you could acquire them? The answer could also be “This is not my specialty. That said, if you accept that I’d need extra time to climb a learning curve, then I’ll take a crack at it”. The most common reason for “I cannot,” however, is over commitment. What’s the best way to respond? “I’m already committed to other responsibilities and projects. I’d love to do this for you at a later time. If that’s not possible, I’d love to be of service somehow in the future”.

The 3rd Gate

The third gate is the trickiest because whether something merits doing isn’t always clear at first. Sometimes the answer to the request is “maybe” or “not yet”. What do you say in those cases? “I need to know more. Let me ask you the following questions….”. Essentially, you’re getting the person convincing proposal. What if you do understand the ask and you don’t think it’s a worthwhile goal for you right now? You might say, “That’s not something I should say yes to at this time because the likelihood of success is low,” “…the necessary resources are too great,” “…it’s not in alignment with the current priorities,”, etc.  When it comes to timing, engage with the request. Then answer quickly. Don’t give a precipitous no.

An Effective Yes

Every good no makes room for a better yes—one that adds value, builds relationships, and enhances your reputation.

What is a better yes?

It’s aligned with the mission, values, priorities, ground rules, and marching orders from above. It’s for something that you can do, ideally well, fast, and with confidence. In other words, it involves one of your specialties—or an opportunity to build a new one. It allows you to make an investment of time, energy, and resources in something that has a high likelihood of success and offers significant potential benefits.

An Effective Yes

The key to a great yes is clear communication and a focused plan for execution. First, explain exactly why you’re saying yes: You can enrich the project, you want to collaborate, you see the benefits. Then pin down your plan of action, especially for a deliverable of any scope. Make sure you agree on the details, including what the requester needs from you, what you will do together, how and when the work will be done, who has oversight, and when you’ll discuss the issue next.


Most people have too much to do and too little time. Saying yes to requests from bosses, teammates, and others can make you feel important but can be a prescription for burnout. The only way to be sustainably successful is to get really good at saying no in a way that makes people feel respected and to say yes only when your reasoning is sound and you have a clear plan of attack.

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