Employee Comms

How to Say “No”to Ineffective and Time-Consuming Communication Asks


 — July 14th, 2022

How to Say “No”to Ineffective and Time-Consuming Communication Asks

I have a confession to make.

I’m not very good at saying “No”. I’m sure I’m not alone. Most people want to be helpful and they want people to like them. And besides, I like being involved in things!

I’ve had to work at it so that I make sure I am focussed on the right priorities and so that I don’t burn out.

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There are a number of statements that will make my hackles—and those of any self-respecting comms professional—stand up:

  • “Can you send this companywide email?” 
  • “I’d like to create a newsletter”
  • “Can you “joosh” that presentation up for me?”
  • “We need a logo for that initiative/project”
  • “Can you organize that leaving do?”

Sometimes there is a disconnect between what the role of a communicator is and what our stakeholders think it is. It can be annoying when we’re viewed as tacticians and party planners when we know we have much more to add. Of course, it’s up to us to educate people on how we can add value, and to set the appropriate boundaries. 

Communicators, it seems, are particularly susceptible to burnout and mental health issues, often being in subservient positions. We are the supporters, the enablers, the ones behind the scenes making others look good.

We are often working with people in more senior positions to ourselves, and this power differential can make it particularly hard to push back.

Feeling overwhelmed and stressed can have serious mental health implications. In a recent global study from the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence on the state of mental well-being in the communication and public relations professions, almost half said they’ve considered leaving the profession because of their mental wellbeing.

How to build your “No” muscle

Of course, the best way of dealing with burnout is to prevent it from happening in the first place. So just how do we build our “No” muscle?

Giving a straight out “No” isn’t always a good idea. You want to make sure you have a good reason and you can’t say no to everything you don’t want to do (hello admin I see you!). It’s also important to be a team player. 

Asking “What do you want to achieve?”

Let’s say you have put significant effort into crafting a considered and valuable communication strategy for your organization. Your approach, messages, and channels have all been agreed. Then, a senior stakeholder approaches you to start up a newsletter for a new product.

You know it’s not the right approach but they are insistent. You don’t want to get the stakeholder offside. How do you navigate this? The best way to deal with this scenario is to meet with them and talk through what they are trying to achieve.

If the goal is to have employees understand a product better, then perhaps running some demos or offering staff discounts is more likely to achieve the desired outcome.

If visibility of the leader is the aim, a showcase or slot in an existing forum are far better options than another newsletter.

Or simply featuring the story in your existing newsletter could have a much more powerful impact and ensure other important messages are not drowned out. Make sure you have good data to back you up.

Asking the question “what do you want to achieve?” is a powerful question. It will result in a better solution for the organization, help the stakeholder achieve their goals more effectively, and you’ll come across as more strategic.

Everyone has a role to play in communication 

Just because you manage communication, does not mean you are responsible for writing, editing, and distributing every piece of communication in the organization.

It’s helpful to get on a page, what the communication function does and doesn’t do that you can share with your stakeholders. Talk it through with them and you may be surprised how much it reduces requests to pretty up PowerPoints and organize morning teas.

Business leaders can be coached, advised, and supported by communicators, but THEY are the Chief Communication Officer for their area/product/service. Communication is most effective when it is leader owned and led and it doesn’t leave the comms person scratching their head with a black piece of paper.

We are magicians and miracle makers, yes, but no matter how good our plan is, it’s never going to work without active engagement and buy-in from leaders.

Be specific with your stakeholders. Clearly state what it is you need from them—they may not have thought through their role in the activity and will appreciate the clarity. 

Suggest an alternative approach

A great way to say “No” but still be helpful is to suggest alternative solutions. “I’m sorry I can’t help you with that but I can send you some tools and templates.” Or, “I’d love to help you brainstorm ideas but I can’t do it this week, how about next week?”

However you do it, be considerate and think about the impact on the other person. Make sure you are clear and straightforward. If you can, have some thoughts ready so you’re not put on the spot. There’s nothing worse than having the other person unsure about whether you’re helping or not. 

Saying no to yourself

Sometimes it’s not your boss or the stakeholder that’s the problem, sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

Having perfectionistic tendencies can mean you spend more time on something than is necessary. Remember the 80:20 rule? Do you find yourself tinkering with perfecting the last 20%? Could that effort be better spent elsewhere?

Learning how to say “No” will help you stay energized, productive, and happy. Taking a little time to educate your stakeholders on what you do, what you don’t, and how you can best help them will save time in the long run and help them achieve their goals more effectively.

You’ll also free yourself up to focus on your biggest priorities and where you’ll have the most impact

And remember your physical and mental health not only affects you but also those around you. If you don’t say “No” to something you are being asked, you are definitely saying “no” to something else—whether it be another priority, getting to your training session, spending time with friends, or sleep!

8 simple steps to mastering “No”

  1. Evaluate the ask—is it the right thing to do?
  2. Know your priorities and back your skill set—is it worth your time and attention?
  3. Suggest an alternative or reach a compromise
  4. Be considerate and think about the impact on the other person
  5. Be clear and straightforward—if you can, have some thoughts ready so you’re not put on the spot
  6. Ask others about how they do it—learn some new techniques
  7. Practice being assertive—the more you do it, the less uncomfortable it will feel
  8. Ask for support when you need it 

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