The science of saying no.

Because saying “yes” isn’t always the right thing to do.

Following on the footsteps of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’s viral success, the #22pushups challenge aims to “honor those who serve and to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention through education and empowerment”.

Richie W., himself a UK Army veteran and a good friend of ours, accepted the challenge.

Day one was great. 22 push-ups done, no problem.

On day two, an old shoulder injury started making itself noticed.

By day five, he was in tears trying to complete the 22 push-ups. Even just watching him from here, a thousand miles away, was painful.

And then he did something special.

Richie said “no”.

We respected him for accepting the challenge in the first place. He aimed to raise awareness to a cause he cared deeply about.

But we respected him even more after he said no. Why?

Because he knew when to acknowledge that to continue this challenge wouldn’t be good for him.

He didn’t do it out of laziness or indifference. Actually he did it in spite of knowing he might be labelled as such.

He did it because he knew by carrying on he’d only aggravate his own serious health issue, which would completely defeat the initial purpose.

He knew that it was time to say “no”.

The science of saying “no” also applies to business.

We’ve all been there: a new prospect client reaches out for a quote or collaboration offer, which, on first inspection seems to be a great fit for you and your business. Of course you want to say yes immediately — being paid to do what you love is great, right?

And then something happens: as you communicate further and find out more about the work, or the client, or as you start working on the job, it becomes apparent that the fit isn’t quite as good as it seemed in the first place.

This might happen for all sorts of reasons — budget restrictions, “impossible” deadlines, your area of expertise isn’t the one they need, your client changed direction halfway through and you feel you can no longer assist them, etc.

So… what do you do then?

You don’t want to bail out — because you need the business; because you have bills to pay and mouths to feed; because you’ve come this far, so might as well suck it up and take it to the end; because you just hate turning people down — you fear they won’t come back and “sometimes you only get one chance to say no…”; because *insert_your_own_motive_here*.

But sometimes you need to take a cold hard look at the situation and realize it’ll hurt you or your business more than actually help. It’ll drain you and your resources, be that time, money, or stamina.

Sometimes you have to say “no”.

Saying no to a client isn’t the worst thing that can happen. The world won’t stop spinning. And your business will survive.

In fact, when you say “no” and do it right, most likely you will have gained a whole lot of respect.

Yes. Respect.

Allowing yourself to say “no” to a job, client or prospective client allows you to concentrate on what you do best.

It allows you to spend your resources on those you can do your best work with and for.

There is no shame or defeat in acknowledging that you are not the best fit for that client or job, but— and here’s the catch — don’t hang them out to dry: give them a referral to someone who might be a great fit for them.

What? So not only do I turn down a client, I also give business to my competitors?!

In Adam Grant’s book Originals he talks about “putting your worst foot forward — the Sarick Effect”.

Grant explains that too much optimism seems like salesmanship, and critical comments are perceived as smarter than positive comments, along with other points associated with this effect.

In this book, Grant relates the story of Babble’s Rufus Griscom, who began his 2009 pitch to potential investors with a slideshow telling them five reasons not to invest. He walked away with $3.3 million.

Two years later, he pitched to Disney and told them why buying his company was a bad idea. They bought it for $40 million.

OK — what’s the point here, and what’s that to do with saying no?

Griscom didn’t say “no— but he listed the negatives to be able to gain trust.

This is what you are doing when you say “no” to a client: you are telling them that you are not the best fit for what they need.

If your client really cares about the quality of the product and service he gets, you have instantly gained their respect and trust, not only for your honesty but also your understanding of their business requirements.

And you get extra brownie points when you point them out to someone who will be able to help them.

Case in point: a couple of months ago we ran the 1st edition of the Porto Photography Experience, with photographers from all over the world coming together to enjoy an amazing weekend of photography in a great location.

Obviously we needed a place for them to stay, with all the usual requirements: comfortable, right price, great location, excellent service— everything to make our travelers feel at home. So we pulled out our contact list, approached a few hotels that met the requirements and asked them if they would want to partner with us.

Out of our hotel shortlist, one stood up from the crowd — and not because they said “yes”.

In fact, it was quite the opposite: they called a meeting to say they were not the hotel we were looking for.

Even though they fit all our requirements, their main focus is the corporate clientele (which they cater to exceptionally well!). But instead of rejecting our request and sending us on our way, they went out of their way to arrange us a meeting with another hotel they knew would be a perfect fit in terms of space, style and location — and with a better price too.

In doing so, they showed us that they weren't just out to get our money, but more importantly, that they understood our requirements and that of our clients.

As a result, those are two of the hotels we now recommend to anyone (friends, clients and non-clients alike) who ask us where to stay while visiting Porto.

The issue of saying “no” to clients has been addressed multiple times before, so it might be helpful for you to read through some other people’s thoughts on this matter. Our top suggestions for further reading are:

  1. Why you should never fire a client
  2. 7 reasons you should fire your client
  3. How to say no to customers without making them angry
  4. Saying no to taking on more work

If you have enjoyed reading this blog please hit the recommend button below: it would mean a great deal to us — or just come on over to twitter and take up the discussion further. We would love to hear your thoughts.