Beyond “Yes/No” — How To Respond To Requests For Help

Written by Mike Shapiro | | February 21, 2017

We’ve all experienced the feeling: “I’ve got too much on my plate.” “I’m overloaded.” And there’s no shortage of advice out there that says “Just start saying ‘No.'”

There may be situations where that’s the right thing but, before doing anything, take a step back.

However you’re feeling, taking the extreme step of changing your default response from an automatic “Yes” to an automatic “No” is more likely to alienate customers, partners, joint venturers, investors — the very people who’ve helped you build your business — than it is to alleviate the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Look deeper into the reason you’re feeling the way you do: No time to give anything the time it really deserves? Can’t find time for your own initiatives? Not enough time for family and friends?

Think about it for a minute: The reason you’re getting so many requests is because people know they can count on you. That’s an indication they have confidence in your abilities. And the reason you are saying “Yes” to so many of these requests is that you want to be helpful. That’s the mark of a kind and generous person who really cares about others. You’ve worked hard to build your reputation. Why would you want to step away from those good qualities that are at the core of any business relationship?

There are several responses between delivering a flat “No”and dropping everything else and blindly diving in head-first to attack the problem someone just dumped in front of you. Ask the following questions:

  1. Urgency. Does it really have to be done now? Is there a piece of it that can be done later?
  2. Definition of the problem. Look behind the words. What result is this person trying to achieve?
  3. Best person for the job. Is there someone else who could do it faster and better? Could the requestor do it himself with a little coaching?
  4. Size of the immediate need. Are there really several requests here, and can I respond to one or more of them and refer the rest to someone else?

Alternative responses to “No” and “Ok, I’ll do it:”

  1. It’s something I can do and want do, but I can’t even look at it now. Say: “I’d be happy to take a look at this with you tomorrow and we can talk then about next steps. Meanwhile, I’d like you to jot down some thoughts on what you’re trying to achieve, for whom and by when, and have that ready when we talk then. How does that sound?”
  2. I can devote a small amount of time right now, but then I have to move on. Say: “This is what I can do now. I may be able to do more later, but I can’t promise. Does that sound like it will meet your immediate needs?”
  3. Someone else is really the best person for the job. Say: “I think you might want to start with Ed on this. See what he thinks he can do. Loop back to me by the end of the day and let me know how it goes.”
  4. Can do it by herself and just needs me to help with direction and to get started. Say: “I think you can do more of this than you think you can. Let me help you get started.” Turn a request for help into a coaching or mentoring opportunity.

Maybe most importantly, take a closer look at signals you may be giving that may be leading others to think they can always count on you to overextend yourself. For example, are you signaling that you will personally take on the other person’s goals and objectives as your own? There’s a big difference between the effort and emotional investment required to help someone with his or her goals vs. making them yours.

It may be the added weight of the responsibility you’ve taken on, rather than the pure time and effort you’ll have to expend, that’s causing your symptoms.

When someone says “I want to do this. Will you help me?” instead of immediately responding in a way that communicates either “I will help you solve the problem as you’ve described it” or giving them a flat “No,” think about how you can best help the person move forward without extending yourself unreasonably.