The Power of Saying "No" (and Why It's So Hard)

May 4, 2022

How to decline with consideration and tact to maintain healthy boundaries in the shop.

During a recent New England Patriots Super Bowl run, a friend offered Michael Tougias a free ticket to enjoy a Pats game at Foxboro with him. Despite being a huge fan of the team, Tougias said no. 

“He was kind of surprised,” recalls Tougias, who splits his time between Massachusetts and Florida. “But I decided that I should be honest with him. I was afraid he was going to come back and ask me next week to go with him, and I didn't want to go then either.”

Tougias let his friend know that he’d prefer to watch the game on TV, which meant not leaving the comfort of his warm living room, avoiding traffic, and not fighting stadium crowds–none of which is his cup of tea. Besides that, he was working on an important writing project, which he felt was more important.

His friend graciously accepted without pushback—rarely the case when someone is told no.

How did we get on the yes train?

Everyone in the shop has been in one of these positions: A technician is asked to leave their bay to help the service advisor; a service advisor is asked by a customer to make a small concession, and the shop owner is paged throughout the day to answer questions and put out fires which slow down their ability to help on a major repair. And while begrudgingly accepting each call of duty, a voice inside screams, “No! I have things to do, too.” 

In his latest book, “No Will Set You Free,” Tougias examines all the potential scenarios where we betray our better judgment by making commitments we’d rather not. He argues that learning to say no can improve your personal and professional life despite it being uncomfortable at first. After all, breaking a pattern we observed in adults or were taught was polite in our formative years doesn’t happen overnight.

“My mother was the politest person on the planet and wouldn't think of saying no to anything. So I observed that and followed that politeness, wanting to be helpful when people asked me to do things,” says Tougias.

He opens his book with a story about a Cornell University research study conducted by Professor Vanessa Bohns, Ph.D. In the study, she volleyed various requests at over 14,000 participants to gauge how they would respond. The participants complied at a far higher rate than wanted to or expected. Bohn’s conclusion: “Many people agree to do things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying no.”

How to Say No to Bosses

One of the most challenging environments to say no in is at work. For most employees, the desire to excel at their job, remain seen as dependable, and maintain a reputation as a team player is at stake. Sadly, we often equate people who have healthy boundaries and who can say no to a request as uncommitted, not team-oriented, and selfish. Both scenarios are false narratives.

“There's nothing selfish about saying no, nothing shameful about it. Every time you say no, you're leaving time for yes to something that's really important to you,” says Tougias.

For employees, saying no to a boss can be difficult. One risk is how the response will be perceived. Tougias recommends employees work together with their bosses to set healthy boundaries and expectations. Sometimes when you need to say no to a request in the shop, having your boss understand why you’re declining to follow through makes them aware of all the tasks on your plate they may not be privy to.

“When I worked in the corporate world, if I was extremely busy and my manager came with yet another project, I'd say ‘Let's take a few minutes to talk about this because here's what I'm working on now. I know these are important to you. Which of these do you want me to put aside for the new one,’” explains Tougias. 

“Be as polite as possible. It's getting the message to him that I'm not going to be able to hop on this right away unless you really want me to, which means I have to put something else on the back burner. So in a way, I was saying no, without saying no.”

However, there are times when you may be required to stay late and finish a job in the bay before you leave. In those times, Tougias doesn’t recommend saying no in that case without a valid reason. 

“If my boss comes to me and says, ‘It's 5:59. I know we close at six, but we’ve got another car coming in the bay. Can you get to one more and then go home?’ I'm saying yes. It’s obviously important to the boss,” he says, but warns that such requests from management should be the exception and not the rule. 

“If it's a trend, say this is happening almost every day, then you need to sit down with [your boss] and have a talk.”

How to Say No to Employees

As a supervisor, not only will you hear no’s from your staff, but you’ll also have to deny requests. Sometimes these requests may be for vacation time during a busy season or a day off when you’re expecting high volume in the shop. As the boss, you have to find a way to be firm without being curt or to be steady without being a pushover. Both dynamics have a relationship with the word no that can alter the shop dynamic, whether that’s saying it too often or too little. Tougias recommends talking privately and candidly with employees when you have to say no, but need them to understand why.

“Set up a meeting because you may not be able to articulate the reasons why you're not able to [honor a request] right off the bat. Ask, ‘Can you meet with me very briefly at four o'clock?’ Then let the employees see things from your shoes and why you have to say no,” he says. “And always do it in a polite and respectful way.”

How to Say No to Customers

One of the more challenging aspects of running a shop is dealing with customers, particularly those who want to debate the price of service, compare prices hoping to gain a discount, or make requests the shop can’t fulfill. In cases such as these, Tougias recommends that those people fielding those requests in customer service be understanding, but keep in mind who your ideal customer is, and don’t fear telling a customer no when it’s warranted.

“The 80/20 rule is good. Basically, 20 percent of your quality customers are the ones that propel your business forward. And they're the ones that probably make up the majority of your profits. Sometimes you have to be able to tell yourself, ‘I'm going to walk away.’ But if you've shown all your cards—[not given a clear no, but left the door open]—that person is probably going to take advantage of you,” he says.

Instead, Tougias recommends shops say no to potential headache customers—typically first-timers—who haggle, complain, or question pricing, costs, and repair timeframes. 

“You let the headaches go, and those great customers who come back time and time again who have been loyal to you through thick and thin; bend over backward for those. It's like in negotiations, you don't want to be so eager. They don't have to know what's going through your head and that you need this desperately,” Tougias says. “Stick to [your] guns.”

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

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