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I’ll never forget one of my father’s “sales lessons” to me as I was starting my first job out of college as a medical device sales professional:

“When someone says “no,” what they are really saying is “yes” to something else.  Your job is to figure out what they are saying “yes” to and then deliver it.”

In two sentences, my dad reframed one of the scariest words in the English language.

Hearing “no” can be a good thing. It helps to focus or refocus us.  It eliminates things that are not needed or don’t matter.  It prioritizes what is more important.

I learned to love hearing “no.” I loved how it brought me closer and closer to the clarity of what would make a person say “yes.”  I took it as a buying sign because my customers were engaging with me and providing me the information that I needed to ultimately deliver the right solution for them – the solution that they wanted and that would help them succeed.  Saying “no” helped them achieve their “yes.”

The irony is, that as easy as it was for me to hear “no” in my sales career, I found find it not as easy to say “no” in my leadership career.

I blame the emergence of my entrepreneurial years – in that I said “yes” to almost everything to help get my businesses up and running.  “Yes! We can do that!”  “Yes! Let’s try it!”  “Yes, I am happy to help.”

I ended up inadvertently training myself that “yes” was better than “no.”

Oh, how wrong I was.

Without “no,” you are saying “yes” to everything – which is not sustainable. There is not enough time nor space for everything.  By saying “yes” to everything, you end up unintentionally saying “no” to something – and most likely, that something is the something that matters most.

We need to say “yes” AND say “no.”   “No” helps us to say “yes” to the vital things – the things on which we need to stay focused and the things we need to prioritize.

“No” is one of the most important vocabulary words a leader has at our disposal.

There are many “want and fear” reasons why we don’t like to say no:

  • Wanting to be all things to all people
  • Wanting to be liked
  • Wanting to be needed
  • The fear of letting someone down
  • The fear of hurting someone’s feelings
  • The fear of saying “no” to the wrong thing


Regardless of why we find “no” hard to say, we must muster the courage to say it.   Remember that saying “no” is simply saying “yes” to something that is more important.  And that decision is the better leadership decision.

Here are 3 ways to start integrating “no” into your leadership conversations:


  1. The Sandwich

The Sandwich is simply a Yes – No – Yes framework.  It is used to “close the door” on moving forward.

Start off with something positive – something that you can say yes to.  “What a great idea.”  “That is very exciting news.”  “Yes, I agree that it is important.”  “Yes, I can see your point.”

Then move to your “no.”  It is important here that you clearly state no. If you truly want to “close the door,” you need to do it without confusion, or the person or thing will come back again.  “I am not the right person for that.”  “I don’t have the right resources for you.”  “I am not in the position to help.”   “It is not my area of expertise or focus.” 

Then, close with a positive reaffirmation or a yes.  Ending with a “yes” not only will help you manage your “no” wants or fears, but it honors the person or thing you are saying “no” to.   “I am very excited for your journey ahead.”  “Keep me posted on your success.”  “Yes, I think you are on to something and know you can do it.”  “I believe in you.”  “I’m grateful that you reached out.”


  1. Redirect

The Redirect provides options or direction elsewhere for the “ask-er.”  It is also a “close the door” no.  This “no” enables you to help without ultimately taking on the “yes.”  So, in other words you are still investing time here, but not as much as if you said “yes.”

In this “no,” you provide assistance in redirecting the “ask-er” to a resource, path, or suggestion to find a “yes” elsewhere. “I am not the right person for that, but I know who is…” “Here is a resource that helped me in that area – it is a great read and should provide you what you need.”  “I have given this some thought, here are 3 ideas that I think you could consider as you move forward.”

Then end with a riff on “I trust you will find this helpful and wish you the best success on your journey.”  In other words, close the loop with words of finality in whatever tone or content that match the ask.  If not, they may come back for more.


  1. The Deferral

The Deferral is simply a “not yet” approach.  Unlike the Sandwich or the Redirect, this approach leaves the door open, in that your “no” is due to a timing issue.

The Deferral is pretty straightforward: “I am happy to help if it can wait until next month.”  “I am committed right now, but you are welcome reach back out in 3 months.”  “I am heads down on a major initiative this year, but we could revisit it next year to see if the timing is better.”

The Deferral could self-morph into a “close the door” in that the “ask-er” may look elsewhere if his/ her ask is a top priority for them.   But displacement is not the intention of this “no” – that would be disingenuous.  Only use this “no,” if you are authentically interested in the “ask” and that your “no” is truly a timing issue.


I encourage you to try one of these techniques in the next week.  The more you practice saying “no” to the right things, the easier it will become, and you will be amazed at the freedom it gives you.  You gain more mental space and more time to focus on your “yeses.”

My dad was right.  “No” is a good thing.  It helps eliminate what we do not need, and it brings us closer to what we do.

Author Doreen Linneman

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