April 16

The Gentle Art of No

When I was an undergraduate I took a Japanese Economics class with an incredible woman, Eleanor Hadley, who had been part of General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation administration in Japan following the end of World War II. Professor Hadley had the most skillful delivery of the word “No” that I’ve ever seen. I once saw a student who had done poorly on a paper try to negotiate a better grade. Her response was, smiling, “Oh, you don’t need a better grade because you’ll do so well on the final, right? You’ll have all the chance you need by studying hard for the final and I have every confidence that you will make up your grade then.” She said, “No” but they way she phrased it was so masterful you always left a conversation with her having forgotten what you had even wanted but feeling as though you really, really, really wanted to please her.

I have to say “Sorry but no” a lot in my job. People often ask me to do things that aren’t reasonable or that we’ve said no to already but they think if they keep asking over and over, we’ll give in. They are wrong but I’ve been working really hard to channel Professor Hadley in dealing with tricky situations in which I must be firm but don’t want to alienate someone. I find that even if I can’t give them something they want, sometimes I can give them something else that softens the blow.