Being Helpful While Still Saying “No”

A while back, I was a team lead at Amazon.  At the time, Amazon was organized into lots of small teams, and each lead was expected to run their team pretty autonomously.  When a team wanted to tackle a project which required the help of some other team, the lead of the one team would generally go talk to the lead of the other team and ask for their help.

This all seems very sensible on the surface, but it frequently happened that certain teams who were at the cross-roads of a lot of systems would be inundated, and, in frustration, would flat-out reject requests.  Naturally, this aggravated the people making the requests, and it turned into an unpleasant spiral.

I had the good fortune not to be running one of those teams, but my team certainly got plenty of requests which weren’t feasible for us to accept.  However, instead of flatly refusing requests, I employed a technique taught to me by one of my mentors at Amazon:

Instead of refusing what you can’t do, offer what you can do.

In one particular incident, I recall the lead of another team calling a meeting with me and a few of his most senior engineers.  They had a scheme in mind which I knew my team wouldn’t have time to handle.  However, taking this advice to heart, I heard him out.  In the end, I told him that my team definitely didn’t have to do what he was asking, but I offered instead to help him brainstorm other options.  At the end of our meeting, we’d managed to work out a different approach which was less work for his team, and none at all for mine.  By offering up a little over an hour of my own time, the lead of the other team walked away happy and thinking well of me despite my refusal of his initial request.

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Of course, this advice has served me well in many aspects of my life since then.  Whether it’s a friend needing a favor, or my spouse wanting help with a project, or anything else, the key insight I’ve taken away is to look for ways to turn a “no” into a “yes”, even if its not the “yes” the person was looking for.

There are two extremely helpful side effects I’ve noticed with this approach.  The first is that it’s a lot easier to offer an alternate “yes” than to say “no”: especially to someone you like.  Using this approach helps me protect my own time instead of allowing my feelings of compassion or guilt trick me into over-committing and regretting it later on.  The second is that it helps me clearly communicate that I do want to help the person, even if I can’t do the exact thing they’re asking.  So, rather than stressing a relationship by a flat refusal (or even more so by a failure to deliver later on), you strengthen it (or at least break even) by showing your eagerness not to refuse them: at least in some capacity.

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