Sometimes there's no way around it. At some point you're going to have to say no to people. Either to protect your time or energy, or simply because what they are asking you for isn't possible. In this article I outline the superower of saying no and offer some useful tips on how to use it.
During my coworking career I’ve developed an incredible superpower. At Impact Hub this superpower allowed me to stay focused and productive inside my space and set boundaries with my members. At PARISOMA it allowed me to set expectations with my colleagues and ensure top quality events and classes. And at all of my spaces and companies it’s allowed me to attract lucrative opportunities that have aligned with our goals as an organization and minimized distractions.
That superpower is knowing when and how to say, “no.”
Time and time again I meet a new coworking manager who has a very common problem. They can’t say no to their members, their colleagues, or the so-called opportunities that come through their door or email inbox.
I get it. It’s really hard to tell people no!
Here are a few examples off the top of my head that have led to the development of my superpower:
Let’s say it together: Yikes!
What all of these scenarios share is that they are likely to be a waste of time and resources for you. And the people instigating each of them fall into one of two distinct time/resource-waster categories: Moochers and Divas.
Moochers are non-members who want to benefit from your coworking space’s network, brand, or resources for commercial or personal gain, but that provide either nothing of worth in return or offer some abstract promise of value in the future. The abstract value they offer is often tied in large part to your effort, not theirs.
Divas are those members who want everything to work their way without regard to how it affects others, including other members, your staff, and yourself. First, they assume that they can do a particular thing or that something works a particular way without finding out from your staff first. When they are wrong, they will then come up with totally reasonable sounding logic as to why things should be that particular way. That logic eventually collapses under objective scrutiny because it either doesn’t scale or only benefits them. And when logic doesn’t work they will resort to bullying.
Moochers are pretty easy to spot. A loud internal warning signal should start going off whenever you hear the words “collaborate” or “partner.” I use air quotes here because what people typically mean when they use these words is that they want you to (a) do the work for them, (b) help them formulate their vague idea into an executable plan, (c) get them access to capital, or (d) provide them with free space and/or services. It should go without saying that as a coworking operator, all of these things are huge distractions that typically provide zero value to you, your coworking space, or your members.
Divas are a bit more difficult to recognize at first glance. They often don’t reveal their Diva tendencies in the beginning. It happens over time. In fact their Diva-ness can easily and mistakenly be recognized as authority or expertise. They’re often very likeable from the outset. However, in my experience, Divas talk a big game but are really full of hot air. They quickly wear out their social capital and become unbearable.
The best way to recognize a Diva is to test their resolve to do things that don’t result in their immediate personal gain. In other words, see if they can be selfless. Ask them to volunteer for an event or do some open office hours for the members. Test upfront with little things like filling out a detailed membership application or joining a new member orientation. If they are, in fact, a Diva, you’ll notice these little asks don’t get followed through with and that they start to complain about seemingly small things. Things like paying a keycard deposit, the sounds of other people in the space, the discomfort of the furniture.
Recognizing Divas isn’t about people not complaining; complaints are fine and often useful. It’s about recognizing a pattern of behavior. Sadly, this behavior isn’t often recognized until they’ve already joined the community.
How to Say No the Right Way
Saying no to Moochers was especially hard at Impact Hub because Impact Hub is a coworking space focused on social enterprise. To many in our city this meant we ought to have been more like a nonprofit or co-op than a company. Because there is a hyper-focus on community in the coworking industry I’m sure you can relate.
But your space isn’t a charity. And even if it were, your giving should be strategic. The fact is you simply have to say no to many people in order to be effective.
And, when it comes to Moochers, the easiest way I’ve found to say no is to say yes; a conditional yes that is. As in:
The goal of these conditional yeses are twofold.
First and foremost, a majority of Moochers will simply never email you again because they know you mean business. Forcing them into concrete deliverables calls their bluff.
Second, some of the people who reach out to you aren’t Moochers at all, but driven, creative, and talented individuals who simply lack experience. Give those people a concrete deliverable and it will be in your inbox on Monday morning. These folks are great people to cultivate as partners and even nurture as potential staff members.
Obviously there will be situations where there is no yes. Some outside requests are clearly a no-go. In these cases, provide a contextual no. This means you tell them no and why it’s a no. As in:
On the other hand, saying no to Divas is an art and it often requires really thick skin. Where most people will simply comply when you give them an informed and kind, “no, sorry, we don’t do it that way,” a Diva will feel put out and sometimes become incensed due to not getting their way.
This means you need to be very clear and very concrete and sometimes be ready for a barrage of incredulity. It can be useful to provide logical examples your Diva would relate to, in order to give them context. In any case there should be no acquiescence or beating around the bush. You can be kind and clear at the same time. As in:
Notice that these responses often make decent use of the sandwich feedback system. This means you put your negatives inside some positives. It stops Divas from blowing up in anger, but still gets your point across. It makes them feel heard and lets them know you are firm in your decision.
As time goes on without you giving into their demands, Divas either move on or calm down. They are like the tropical storm waves crashing against the rock face. After all the tumult and destruction, you’re still standing, and the sea has calmed.
Employing the superpower of no can vastly increase your productivity, effectiveness, and joy. Even better, it makes your community more productive, effective, and joyful as well. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Boundaries are important. And it’s your job to ensure those boundaries are set and reinforced. Embrace the superpower of saying no.
Marketing Director at Habu, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.