HOW Speaker Emily Cohen: The Art of Saying No

For a tiny, two-letter word, it packs a punch. It has the power to free you from deadlines. It can stave off unwanted projects. It can wrangle you out of any social engagement you don’t want to attend. And boy, does it ever feel good when you say it.


But oh, how we fret over uttering that word. We’re afraid to say no. Concerned that it may make us look unhelpful, anti-collaborative, ungrateful, antisocial.

At HOW Design Live, Emily Cohen will give you the permission—and the power—to say no. Strategically, in the right ways, when it makes the most sense. Rock the Boat, Baby! The Art of Saying No will unpack the fears we all have and give us confidence to utter that tiny little word.

Her session is inspired by her forthcoming book, Brutally Honest, which gets straight to the point with lots of actionable and easy-to-digest insights, tips and checklists, plus a collection of real-world, honest case studies that provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at business strategies from successful design agencies. Check out her Kickstarter campaign to get it published.
 Emily Cohen; the art of saying no

We recently asked Cohen about saying no—and as a case in point, she said a gracious “no” to our original timeline and asked instead for an interview that better fit her schedule.

Why do people have a hard time saying no, even when it’s painfully obvious that that’s what they should do?

Creatives in general are people-pleasers; they want people to love them, and that’s the core. There’s an underlying “what if?” that makes creatives terrified of losing the business if a client doesn’t like them.

Saying no is not confrontation, it’s not being nasty. It’s about being open to having difficult conversations, knowing what you do and don’t want to do or say and putting parameters around relationships, so you’re not everyone’s whipping post. It’s about saying no and not damaging the relationship—or being OK with the risk that the relationship will end.

Saying no to clients or projects that aren’t a good fit is one thing when you’re freelancing. How can you gain the power to say no when you’re working in an organization?

It’s harder—I’m not going to say it’s not. When you’re working in-house, you often lose power because of all the silos. So you have to do your due diligence: Where, how far, are you willing to go? What’s the worst situation that can happen, and is that OK? Are you willing to escalate this up one level if you need to? Once you have that plan, you keep that in mind and it gives you direction during those conversations. At HOW, I’m going to be talking about the preparation you need to do beforehand and the language you need to arm yourself with, so it’s not just an in-the-moment “no.” Before you get to the no, there’s all this other stuff you need to do.

Daniela Garza of Anagrama, Joshua Chen of Chen Design Associates, and Mackey Saturday of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv await your work in the HOW Promotion & Marketing Design Awards. Deadline to enter: April 9

Is there one time when you generally shouldn’t say no?

That’s a good question … I think that “no” isn’t the answer when you haven’t done everything you can do get to a solution or if you’re not owning your own role in the problem. Don’t say no unless you can change yourself first, and if those changes don’t affect the outcome you need, then that’s when you say no. You don’t say no willy-nilly.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve said no to?

Oh god, so many things! I say no on a daily basis …

Recently a prospect called me out of the blue, without a scheduled call, to talk about new business. They started talking and I just said, “Before we get too far along in this conversation, this is not a good time for me to talk, but we can set another time when it’s more convenient.” They were a little surprised, but I think that my saying no made them realize that I’m a busy person and that, therefore, I must be good at what I do—so it positioned me a little differently in their minds. I think most people would have been afraid they’d lose that business if they’d said no to having the discussion right then and there.

I say no to clients who have unreasonable demands. I am always teaching my clients to say no in their businesses, so I have to model that behavior.

Sometimes it’s good to say no just to open up space in the universe to let other good stuff in. A lot of designers are afraid to say no to new work or to the types of projects that would build their skills. But when you weed some things away, it lets other, better, things come in to fill that space.

Why does saying no feel so freaking good?

Because you’ve stuck up for yourself, you’ve cleared a hurdle, done something you feared would be difficult and it wasn’t as bad as you thought. If you get through the no, you’ll see five things that happen that are good—maybe you meet a new person who can help you or you have time to take on something that is a better fit. Saying no reclaims some power that you might have lost. And then it gives you the comfort level to do it again.

Here’s one thing you can’t say no to: attending HOW Design Live.

Don’t pass up this opportunity to expand your mind, build your skills, develop your confidence and widen your network. To help you (and your boss) say yes, there are multiple options for single- or multi-day registrations, plus a discount if you sign up before the final early registration date of April 16.

Register today!