Imagine, for a moment, that your exec has just asked you to do something that you do not want to do.
Maybe because you don’t feel confident that you can do it well, or because your plate is already full, or simply because you don’t think it’s an appropriate ask. Whatever the reason, your entire being is screaming “NOPE.”
But, if you are like most EA’s, the idea of saying no to your exec ranks right up there with eating glass and juggling angry vipers. Because, honestly, nobody likes to hear a no, and as EAs we are forever trying to improve our exec’s experience and reduce their stress, not add to it.
So what do you do?
Happily, most of the time, you don’t actually need to say “no.” What you really want to say is, “yes, if…”
Yes, I would be happy to book an early flight for you tomorrow morning (even though I’m at home right now) IF it can wait until my kids are in bed an hour from now.
The idea is to set a realistic expectation for results you are willing and able to deliver, and in what time frame.
The only time you need to actually say no is after a boundary has been disrespected.
Your boss calls you at 7 pm and says he needs you to book him a flight the following morning. You tell him you’ll be happy to do that in an hour, after your kids are in bed. Boss says, there may not be a seat left in an hour. I need you to do this NOW.
You’ve set a clear boundary: my time at home is my time; if you need me to do work after hours, that work will get done on my schedule. And that boundary has been trampled.
This, my friends, is when a no is not only appropriate, it is necessary. For both of you.
If you do not say no when a boundary has been disrespected, two things are likely to happen. 1. You will send a message to your exec that you don’t really mean what you say, and 2. You are likely to get resentful.
So, for the sake of your sanity, your self-respect, and maintaining a healthy and sustainable working relationship with your exec, you now need to say no.
The A,B,Cs of saying no
There are 3 steps to saying no gracefully and respectfully:
Acknowledge the legitimacy of the ask
set a Boundary
Close off quickly and firmly
A, B, C
Always begin with acknowledgment. Often just hearing someone acknowledge that our need is legitimate and should be taken seriously is enough to defuse our panic and upset.
“It’s true: there may not be any seats left on that flight an hour from now. The urgency is not lost on me, and I’m sure you also have things you need to take care of at home this evening.”
Next, describe the consequences of saying yes to this request, and set a clear and consistent boundary.
“That said, I am not going to be able to give this task the focus it requires until my kids are in bed, which will be an hour from now. Booking travel while distracted can result in disaster, and I’m not OK with that. So if you absolutely need the flight booked before then, I’m afraid you’ll have to book this one yourself.”
Finally, close off quickly and firmly, leaving no room for argument or bargaining.
“I’ll check back in with you after the kids are in bed to see if you still need me to book the flight. Talk to you soon!”
And then you turn off your phone for the next hour. Any further communication will weaken your position and call your integrity into question.