The Art of saying “No”

January 31, 2013 — 23 Comments

bad idea


Telling your client “no” is a bad idea.

Except when it isn’t … but saying “no” is a practice you should try to avoid.

I don’t like to say no and I’ll  always try to find a way to avoid saying it to someone. I’m not talking about if someone asks me if I would like a red-hot poker stuck in my eye (that answer will always be a “no”) but rather when a client tells me they want to paint their walls a mixture of ‘Ox Blood’ red and ‘Eggplant’ purple.

but in stripes.

… in the children’s bedroom

… to play off the clown marionettes they plan on hanging from the ceiling.




My brain is telling me that I should say no to this idea which, in all fairness, is probably not a sound design direction in most cases. Rather than saying “no”, I will say:

Okay, let’s talk about the pro’s and con’s of that decision.

What happens next is I talk through the process and results of that decision. A vast majority of the time, the client will decide for themselves that this is not the right move …

… and I didn’t have to tell them no and I didn’t embarrass them by pointing out that their great idea was not as great as they thought.

The results of taking this approach (which is really more of a process) goes beyond the occasional dodging  a bad color scheme that leads to years of all sorts therapy (mental and aroma). What we have created is ownership and investment in the project from the client because now they’ve played an active role in the decision-making process. It has also created an atmosphere of collaboration between me and my client. Rather than coming across as the arrogant architect who doesn’t listen to their clients wishes, I’m the architect (with the foxy silver hair) who actually listens.

To really appreciate something, you have to understand it and by walking through the cause and effects of the decision-making process, the client understands completely why certain decisions have been made. This isn’t an architectural thing – it’s a human being thing and it works with everyone everywhere just about all the time.

… and it’s pretty nice to tell somebody no without actually having to be the one to tell them no.




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  • Derek

    when did your hair go all silver? i’m 31, in grad school and have gone 80% grey already. When I started undergrad, I used to joke with my sister that by the time I finish Masters, I’ll have gone all grey and look older than the dean awarding me my degree. xD

    • My hair was dark brown when I graduated but I have the first indications of gray showing up. When it changed, it was more of a gradual fading (instead of a salt and pepper thing) and it was probably completely white by my mid-thirties.

  • Great Post, and heaven forbid that if you do go through a process like this the client may reveal more to you then you first understood. This may even alter your opinion on a matter…. Maybe not on the “Ox blood/ Eggplant” striped wall.

  • Paul Scharnett

    Solid post, Bob. Great idea on the “pro” vs “con” thing.

    I’ve found it an interesting (as a client-designer hybrid) challenge when my design encumbers upon a disagreement with those above. It’s inevitable that it should happen, but it’s even more of a struggle to say “no” when the company has been doing things the same way for so long that it has become part of the corporate identity. It means that what has been thought as a “classic” idea and a fundamental part of the construction process is a “whole new approach” when it really should have been done way before. But then again, it’s all about ROI in my situation.

    In short, sometimes saying no means you have to create drama. And you have to justify your drama in dollars.

  • NO.
    I really really like your blog, Bob.

  • So you don’t like my marionettes idea after all?

    • it was better than your “rolling around naked in paint and rubbing your body on the walls” idea.

      They can’t all be winners

  • Jeanine H

    Lol love it!
    I would also add that when we allow clientele input in that way, ie ‘lets talk pros and cons’ it becomes an easier decision to sway, when allowing the client to get to their own ‘no, not a good idea’ answer–clients always appreciate having that sense of control and the last word.
    In all seriousness, this is also a great way to help the client trust you, themselves, and add belief and responsibility to their own choices (alleviating some stress off of builder/architect/designer) This way of promoting NO is a win win situation. Thank you for putting it into such perfect wording!

    • It’s also part of just being a decent person.

      Thanks Jeanine, I appreciate the comment

  • lp

    Love the post! Interesting you chose an example that could easily be corrected at any point in the process – even years arfter completion – vs. a more costly & potentially permanent architectural disaster. Before having kids, I thought the sky was blue and trees were green. But you know…. turns out some of the most beautiful trees and skys I’ve seen haven’t fit my mold. Knowing when to be firm w/ “no” and when to let it go are just as important of a skill and shouldn’t be overlooked. Keep up the good topics!!

  • Great post, Bob. Getting people invested (not just from a hiring perspective) is always best. And you’re right – you can use this in all sorts of situations.

  • Drew Hasson

    People skills are virtues that have endless value. I can totally relate, the changing of a client’s mind is easily noted on the change of facial expression. I used to run into this all the time, working as a Cable Guy for TWC in the homes of the customers. Overall, my job was to solve problems and assist customers with their complaints and questions. I always did this to the best of my abilities and within the guidelines of the Cable Company. (Safety, Health, OSHA, etc) Often, I’d be met with “suggestions = solutions” from the customer. A common handful of questions, asked to me by 34,871,906 different customers: “Oooohhh… can I get a new box? The cable box sucks. Do you have any extras on your truck? I think it’s the box.” I could’ve easily said “NO” to the person paying a bill to my employer. Instead, I rephrased it as “Let’s have a look at your setup, the problem may not be with the BOX and therefore, you might not even need a NEW one.” Moral of the story? There is a lot more to the Cable TV system than just some wire on the walls and the converter connected to your TV. Often, I’d find the source of the problem elsewhere and restore service to the full satisfaction of the account holder. Usually the customer would say words to the effect of: “Wow, it works great now! You definitely know your stuff. Can you give me your name, I’d like to call and laude your professionalism.” Bottom line = Build a rapport, listen, look for other ways to disapprove of an idea. Good business practices are hand in hand with people skills.

  • Malabar

    I find the more I can educate a client on the unseen results of their decision the more the rely on my advice – both to do something and to prevent a serious faux paux in design. The trick is to talk them through an idea they have (assuming it isn’t a good one) without coming across as condescending. When done properly, they believe it was their good taste that decided against the mistake – then everyone wins 🙂
    Nicely written article.

  • Greg Swedberg

    I find it especially hard to “discuss” when when I TOTALLY disagree with my client who’s proposing something odd. In particular, when that odd idea was first pitched to them by ANOTHER design professional. The client “bought-in” to it and now wants to share it with me. –good post.

  • Well said. It takes a bit more time and thought, but it’s been my experience that a collaborative attitude always yields better results than being closed-minded.

  • Rob

    This is a good point:

    ” . . . they’ve played an active role in the decision-making process.”

    In what I do, I think the outcome is a better collaboration of what I might know and what they want, whenever this occurs.

    • Exactly! There is always this balance of what the clients wants along with the expertise they have hired us to provide them. With a little effort, the collaboration almost always yields a better end result – for everyone involved.

  • John Cruice

    Great post! As you state, this isn’t just useful in a designer/client interaction. Many see this as something that is missing from the current political environment. If you look at the great leaders in history, they are remembered for their diplomacy and ability to make everyone around them think they had a role in progress. It’s a skill we all should practice. It’s not natural for me as I have the patience of a 4 year-old when it comes to people blurting out their “what if…” ideas, but when I see it done well, I appreciate it as a thing of beauty.

    • Thanks John,
      I was lucky to have this process explained to me early on in my career and I can’t stress how important a role it has played in my development. Other than taking a bit more time to get to the end, I really don’t see a downside.

      Cheers (nice to see you back here)

  • mila

    super post…no one ever talks about courtesy…and I find myself missing it more and more the older I get (I’m silver too!) We all tend to move so fast and sometimes forget how to be diplomatic in these types of situations—especially when we know we’re right 😉 It’s great to hear your way of giving people a kind way ‘out’…

    • Hi Mila,
      Backing people into a corner only gives them one way to go and frequently it’s right over the top of the person who put them there.

      • ^^This^^ reply should be made into a poster and hung somewhere.

        Great post! Like you said, it really is a process. And can be greatly hindered when the designer (or in my case the CM/Contractor) doesn’t really understand the why’s behind the no.