How To Say No Without Pissing Anyone Off


Time is precious. And yet it has never has it been harder to find than in this manic, hyper-connected 21st century world of ours. The business day of delivering products, services, and company strategy now includes fending off a steady stream of unwanted requests. Not only are they a major distraction, they also devour our time and energy.

The Internet has aggravated this problem with its easy, unfiltered access to everyone with few consequences for inconsiderate, invasive behavior. Without us asking for them, in poor pitch letters, requests for introductions, product offers, solicitations for coffee, or requests for free advice over wine.

We fancy ourselves as “can do" professionals, team players who power through obnoxious situations, preferably politely and respectfully. That's a salutatory goal, but a polite reply doesn't seem to translate into a firm “no" that sends the requester away.

Or can it?

The Manners Movement:

Emily Post, the grand dame of social etiquette, came out of Victorian times with a set of rules that everyone adopted to “fit into" society. She was not just about which fork to use, when to write a thank you note, and who gets introduced first. Her rules provided guidance on how to navigate interpersonal situations with grace and respect.

While her classic tome is still in print, it no longer enjoys its wide acclaim. In the 21st century, the individual reigns supreme. Self-interested behavior is not only acceptable but fair game. Old fashion codes of conduct have been abandoned with little to replace them. The egregious behavior of our national politicians reflects this trend.

To protect the quality of our work day, we must manage the self-centered, unaware oafs inside and outside of the office whose demand for our time makes our lives miserable.

Ten Tips For Saying “No":

Below are tips and tips for saying “no" effectively to various types of colleagues, managers and vendors. Given different personalities, one size does not fit all. Responses must be tailored to the person and circumstances. In all these situations, a gracious, respectful response will increase the likelihood of protecting you from criticism and further unwanted requests.

In other words, think of good manners as a strategy, rather than a capitulation.

1. The Natterer: They talk compulsively, usually about some mindless dilemma of their own making. They are not interested in solving their problems, but rather in consuming your attention. Validate their concern, saying with a sympathetic smile, “It sounds like you have a real problem there. Good luck with that." Then return to your work. If they persist in pestering you, try, “Sorry, but I need to get this done." If that fails, stand up, and say, “Excuse me, I have to go." Smile, say no more, and leave.

2. The Office Operator: This office classic always has an agenda, and they want you to serve it. They come at you with an oily, “Hey! How are you?" They add an empty social comment, then get with their real purpose. “I hear you are buddies with [someone important to their cause]. Do you think you could ask them to..." This operator has built no political capital with you. Your response? “I'd like to help, but I have no dog in this hunt, and she knows it. You might try [name]."

3. The Passive Aggressive: They respond to your denial of their request with a sarcastic, “Oh, well, I guess you are super busy." Your best response is a level, “'Yes, I am." Resist biting on further remarks, it really won't do you any good.

4. The Digital Natterer: These people cannot end an online conversation, filling the air with rejoinders. “Yes, but can you believe..." It's up to you to close the conversation. “Hey, gotta go, or the bailiff will be at the door." Then stop answering. If it's important, they will try another channel. You can decide whether it's worth it to you.

5. The User: You may or may not know these people from outside your company. Either way, it's important to draw a boundary. “I'd liked to see you, but have no bandwidth. When I do, I'll let you know." If they come back, retain control of the conversation by repeating your position. Then end the exchange.

6. The Personalizer: No matter what you say, they hear any comment as a reflection on their self-worth. “No" is a rejection on their personhood. Preface any “no" by validating their worthiness. “I really appreciate you asking. Sounds like a great project. Unfortunately, I can't help with this one because of a screaming deadline on [project name]."

7. The Bully: These aggressive personalities succeed through intimidation. “No" can feel dangerous. After a healthy pause to break the intensity, you say, calmly, without a hint of hostility, “Sorry, good idea, but I can't help you with that." They don't expect that type of response and hate conflict. This works best when you add an objective business reason that does not reflect on them personally.

8. The Campus Pet: These people win a “yes" because they have gained support from the “right" people for their commitment to them and their own can-do attitude. They are also politely toxic. “No" to them must include a good business reason that keeps them looking good. “I don't have the bandwidth right now, but have you considered talking with [name]? They would be perfect for that."

9. The Debater: Unlike the bully who hits and runs, the debaters need to prevail. There is no winning except on their terms. Your best move is to not engage. If they start up, raise your hand and say, “Sorry, I can't get into this right now." Then stop talking.

10. The Needy Person: A variation on The Natterer, their requests are probably gratuitous. What they need is validation—something a workplace is not geared to provide. When the whining begins, gently say you can't help them, and wish them good luck.

This piece was originally published on June 4, 2017.

5 Min Read

Judge Tanya Acker On Overcoming Racial Barriers And Her Rise To The Top

You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.

Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life.

The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.

“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.

Shaping Her Career

Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.

"I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.

“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."

After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.

As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.

How Did Acker Become A Judge?

In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."

Judge Acker in white pantsuit with her dog. Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.

Acker's Time Away From Home

Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.

Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."

She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.

“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."

“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."

Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."

Overcoming Racial Barriers

As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.

At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.

Three Pieces Of Advice From Judge Acker

The Power Of Self-awareness

“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."

Know Your Support System

“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."

Learn From Your Experiences

“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.

“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.

Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.

This article was originally published May 15, 2019.