Focus on the big “YES” makes it easier to say the little ‘no’

In my coaching conversations with leaders around the world, the challenge of staying focused is a recurring theme. Many executives feel fragmented and dissatisfied. They struggle to find time to think strategically. As a result, they are not always at their best. They KNOW that they should be more selective about what they get involved in, but many struggle to say “no”.

I have written about this challenge earlier (see the article Finding the courage to say “no” – gently and respectfully), but the challenge is pervasive, and I choose to touch on it again, and illuminate it from two angles.

Maintaining focus on the big YES

The leaders who successfully filter opportunities and stay focused, typically have great clarity on where they are headed. They have a “big YES” – an idea or a goal that they are fully committed to, and which is connected to their values, to their sense of who they are, to what brings meaning for them. It is not a vague concept; it is a future state that they connect with, viscerally. It is an objective they are prepared to sacrifice for. They are prepared to invest personal effort, time, concentration … and they are prepared for the disappointment that can and will occur when they say ‘no’ to the little requests that do not contribute to their vision.

This does not mean that these leaders are anti-social and egocentric – exclusively focused on their own objective. They may well say yes, selectively, to take on tasks that will further the common good, or that will help someone in need. But, they are not hostages to the requests from others, as they are on a mission, and will not be detracted too far from this mission.

The yes-no-yes response

When the big YES is clear, it makes it easier to say “no” in a way that does not cause offense and does not damage relationships. A helpful response to a request may consist of three parts

i) affirming the legitimacy or the value of the request,

ii) declining the request and sharing which greater goal you are focusing on, that leads you to say no,

iii) proposing a way to be helpful that does not derail you from your primary target.

Two simple examples:

[In response to a request to commit to an impossible deadline]: I understand that this is an important opportunity and that the work is urgent. I can, however, not drop everything else to focuses solely on this deadline, as I am already committed to X. I will, nevertheless, support you, provided we can find someone else who will take the lead and provided we can negotiate some flexibility around the target date.

[In response to giving up one of your staff members to another team]: I am delighted that you are impressed by my staff member and that you would like to have her on your team – she is indeed highly skilled and conscientious. It is, however, not possible for me to free her up at this time, as she is heavily involved in X and it would cause great disruption if I were to free her up on such short notice. I will, nevertheless, discuss with her to see if she can free up a day per week to support you, and ensure skills transfer to your team as soon as possible.

A way to gain greater clarity around your “big YES” is to follow Ben Zander’s idea (articulated in The art of possibility) of ‘giving yourself an A’. The idea is simple: imagine that you are at the end of next year, and you look back. What, during this year, will make you particularly proud? What will have given you a deep sense of accomplishment? What will you have done to receive a top grade? Write your report card – where the overall grade is A, and the report card describes why you deserve this grade. Now live your life, in the coming year, so that you live up to the expectation you have set for yourself. You fill find it easier to say ‘no’ when distractions come your way.

As today’s date is December 23, let me use this opportunity to wish all readers Happy Holidays. May you enjoy a time of peace, warmth and love in the coming week – in a way that brings you great joy and prepares you for the bright opportunities of 2017.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.