how to say no without sounding negative

A reader writes:

I’m by nature an over-thinker/highly analytical person. When I make a structural or wording choice, I put a huge amount of thought into which of the many options will be clearest and easiest to understand.

When I then bring the draft to my client or to colleagues, they will often have many suggestions. Inevitably, because a) it’s my job and b) I’m an overthinker, I’ve already given serious thought to the option they put forward and discarded it for several reasons. It’s often a good idea on the face of it, and it was worth thinking through before discarding. But the end result is a dynamic where I am just saying a litany of “No, because then we would have to change X, no because that would conflict with Y, no that wouldn’t work, no no no.” I have these reasons immediately at hand because it’s just the thinking I already put into it. But it may look like I’m shooting it down automatically because my response is so quick.

I don’t like that I’m being so negative and shooting everything down. It looks like I’m not open to feedback or changes. But I can’t see a way to avoid it other than not putting in serious thought when I first do the work. (Occasionally there is something I haven’t thought of it and I take it seriously and listen! But I’ve had days or weeks to think about it, and this is people’s initial impulses on first seeing it.) Is there a way to respond to these suggestions that isn’t so negative but also doesn’t imply I haven’t done any previous thought or analysis?

I answer this question — and two others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Employee keeps calling out sick because she “ate too much”
  • Recruiting someone who works for an important customer

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. HoHumDrum*

    This is why I find it really annoying when people provide feedback unprompted, or give feedback outside the scope of what they’re asked for (e.g. “Hey, let me know if this language works for the flyer” “Language is fine, but let me suggest a different font!”). It just ends up siphoning off time and resources that can be better spent.

    Of course sometimes the person doing that IS suggesting something that was missed, which is also why I prefer to work in collaborative environments where you are given lots of opportunity to provide feedback in ways that are actually helpful. So it is often a two-way street that way.

    And I say all this as somebody with a LOT of opinions and a love of running my mouth, recognizing when my feedback is helpful or needed has been a big skill for me to work on.

    1. Jane*

      My agency recently had a massive inter-departmental scandal about this. Essentially someone was asked to provide feedback and ripped into a large document with redline edits, some of which another attorney argued were actually misstatements of the law. I wasn’t privy to how the request was worded but there are now essentially two sides, and if you’re on Team Cindy then you think Cindy’s feedback was reasonable and helpful, and if you’re on Team Alice you think Cindy should’ve stayed in her lane and provided only minor stylistic changes and should stay in her lane. There was so much infighting about it that it was escalated to the people directly reporting to the General Counsel, and I’m sure he heard at least some of it too.

      1. HoHumDrum*

        And I don’t know the specifics of the feedback that was asked for, but this kind of thing is also why I get frustrated when people aren’t specific when they ask for feedback.

        If you say “any feedback is appreciated, thanks!” then you’re more likely to get a Cindy and I’m sympathetic to her position. If you said “Can you just give it a quick glance over and let me know if you see any big discrepancies or glaring errors” or “I just want to know if this materials list looks feasible” or whatever, then I’m team Alice

        Like I said, it can be a two way street, sometimes the issue is the person being asked is convinced they’re the sole genius toiling amongst you idiots and that’s why they give you unhelpful advice. But sometimes it’s that someone is just giving you 110% effort and you’re the one who failed to define the terms of what you were looking for.

        1. Not Australian*

          Absolutely agree here, HoHum! As someone frequently tasked with ‘editing’ other people’s work, it’s very difficult to calibrate expectations – especially as the language around it is hardly standardised. I’ve asked for an edit or in-depth comments only to be told “it’s good” when I know it isn’t, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a whole other conversation about the level of feedback you’re looking for, and to ask very specific questions about the material concerned, or the gap between expectation and performance can be almost impossible to bridge.

          1. Astrid*

            Three cheers for convos about the level of feedback you’re looking for! Last year I pulled together an “editing menu” with examples of what a light, medium, and heavy edit look like; when folks ask me to review docs, I ask them to choose which level of review they’re looking for from the menu. It’s been a great way to manage everyone’s expectations (mine included!) and saved a lot of grief all around.

      2. Somehow_I_Manage*

        I tend to be team Alice on this one. Quality reviewers should have a clear scope. Usually the client didn’t pay a premium for perfect, they paid for a minimum “standard of care.” That means, that if you have a budget of 8 hours to review a design plan, I need you to focus on whether or not the design works, and put the majority of your 8 hours there. I have to train my team on this regularly in the engineering field. The truth is, ideally we want it all to be perfect, but we’re not getting sued for using the wrong font. We’re getting sued if the math is wrong.

    2. Dinwar*

      The other thing I find annoying about this sort of unsolicited feedback, in addition to what you said, is that the person providing the feedback always–ALWAYS–presumes that they are correct, and that the default is that you need to prove them wrong. It’s never “Have you considered the font? There are some potential issues with it”; it’s always “This is the wrong font. It should be X.”

      I’ve got a coworker like this. He’ll comment on everything–from the way I write, to the way I organize my tracking logs, to the way I tie my shoes, to the way I raise my children (who he has never met). It’s exhausting having to constantly defend myself about things I’ve never asked his opinion about. And of course any suggestions I make are inherently wrong.

      For some people it’s not about improving the product, it’s about power. It’s about making other people do as they say. And like all abusers and bullies, as soon as you start putting up boundaries YOU’RE the problem. You can’t take feedback! You never listen to anyone’s opinions! It’s an attempt to beat you back into submission.

        1. HoHumDrum*

          Mmm, I mean it frequently can be, and in the examples above it clearly is, but sometimes it really is “Oh I love what you have, can I add more ideas onto that!”

          But I work in education where we do feel collaboration brings better results, which is also why I say that a strong workplace should provide lots of avenues for collaboration to cut down on the times good feedback goes missed or is only given when it’s too late.

          1. Dinwar*

            The issue is where the boundary is. Everyone has a different boundary, and calibrating for each other’s idiosyncrasies can be difficult. Most of us assume that the other person is behaving reasonably. When you get someone who’s behaving maliciously, like an abuser, they use that intent and calibration period to slowly distort your understanding of what’s normal.

            I mean, look at how the LW defends themselves. They almost automatically insult themselves–“I’m an overthinker”, not “I’m thorough and like to explore all my options”. It’s THEM that’s bad in this–in a distinctly moral sense–not the person who’s criticizing them. The LW has accepted that immediate gut-reaction feedback should properly be given the same level of consideration as careful, intensely thought-out planning–basically saying that their work isn’t any good (I get Type 1 vs Type 2 logic, but it’s impossible that everyone is so much better at Type 2 than the LW is at Type 1). The LW is trying to tailor THEIR communications style so as to not hurt the feelings of others, without regard to the fact that the others are acting in a rather insulting way.

            When you look at the implications of what’s being said there’s quite a lot of negative self-talk in this letter, and that’s distressing. Part of this is explainable by “Focus on what you can control”, but at a certain point it’s worth asking if the other people are being reasonable.

        2. Mekong River*

          Possibly true, but not useful regarding work.

          Not really useful in other circumstances, either. Or even necessarily always true.

    3. Mark The Herald*

      I find it really irritating when someone assumes that the alternative that they thought of IMMEDIATELY, ten seconds after I finished my proposal, is something that might not have occurred to me. I don’t mind if it’s, “help me understand why Z is better than Y.” That’s fine. But “You just recommended Z, but I have a great idea. My old company did Y. Y works like this. We should do Y instead.”

      1. Elbe*

        THIS. I find it very presumptuous when someone frames their suggestion as something that should be done, rather than asking a question about why that approach wasn’t taken.

    4. It Might Be Me*

      Answer the question that’s asked! I wish.

      I try and stop myself from this behavior. Don’t overthink and provide the feedback requested.

      1. GreenDoor*

        “Don’t overthink and provide the feedback requested.” I wonder if this is OP’s problem – not being specific enough about the feedback they need?

        Maybe instead of “here’s the draft proposal” try “Please double check my grammar…fact check my bullet points…tell me if the layout is pleasing or if it’s too cluttered looking…is this a good balance of narrative and visual aides here?” Perhaps that would cut down on the unnecessary feedback?

    5. Marna Nightingale*

      The thing I am getting from the OP, though, is that this is actually solicited, or at least expected, feedback on a draft. They also say that it’s frequently enough good ideas that they considered them, which is WHY they can quickly explain why that’s not the right answer.

      Also, sometimes even very competent people have an off-day and miss things, and OP, recognizing this, WANTS to be asked if they’ve considered these things.

      And, lastly, speaking as a serious overthinker myself, I ask a LOT of “why did you do it/not do it that way” questions, and I promise it’s not because I think my coworkers don’t think their stuff through.

      It’s either because poking the draft to make sure the final result is a strong as possible is my job, or because I am going to be working on some aspect of the thing the draft is for and if my coworker decided not to do X, Y, and Z I want to know a bit about why so that when it’s my turn to make independent decisions they’re congruent with what they decided and did.

      What they asked about was not coming across as negative.

      My suggestion there is, go ahead and go meta. Just say “I definitely want you to ask me these questions and make these suggestions. The thing is, a lot of them are good enough ideas that I tried them out already. So I don’t want you to think I’m dismissing you if I spend a lot of time saying “I did that and it was looking promising right up until the teapot caught fire”.

  2. introverted af*

    Would it be possible to do a little more with the initial presentation to show some of this pre-work? I.E. whether in an email or meeting in the 2 or 3 areas you spent the most thought, “I considered XYZ for this section, but ultimately landed on ABC for 123 reasons.” This could also head some of that off a little bit by showing your own thought, but also demonstrates the work you’re doing more in detail than the final product does.

    1. Bee A. Butterfly*

      This is basically my approach. It’s actually the norm in my (writing) job to add comments to the document about dilemmas and decision points. It doesn’t usually take very long to capture the gist. Usually the reviewers confirm a well-made decision; occasionally one will point out an angle I didn’t think of. It’s also helpful to have a record of the thought process in an early draft of the document, in case the question comes up again later.

      1. EngineeringFun*

        I’m an engineer too and this happens all the time. I use a summary comparison table. Key features in row. Each option in column. Green check marks for meets/includes and red marks for fails. Thus quick way to compare each option. Good for discussions.

      2. Clisby*

        Not an engineer, but I was a computer programmer for years, and it was not at all uncommon to present proposals like that.

        Like: “Here’s the problem (or objective). We considered several possibilities, each of which had advantages and disadvantages, and our recommendation is that we do A, because of X, Y, and Z. We also considered B, which had the advantage of X but not Y and Z; and C, which had the advantage of Y but not X and Z.”

        Without offering that perspective, how does the target audience know you even gave a thought to B and C? You *did* give thought to B and C, so just say so up front.

        1. Dinwar*

          Depends on the audience. There are certain managers and clients who just want a decision. They don’t care how you came up with it–that’s YOUR job, after all! And of course history and relationships matter. After 3 or 4 “And this is why I didn’t opt for this choice” discussions folks are going to realize that you really did consider the options, and will start to trust you. At that point going over the full decision matrix is generally a waste of time.

          Obviously there are some areas where multiple options must be considered, due to legal, procedural, or SOP issues, and those trump any of that.

    2. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      I used to do this (because I am an over-thinker), but most of my bosses have discouraged this approach. They thought it muddied the water to hear about my options and process, they just wanted a confident recommendation / path forward. Even more so when it was being presented to a client vs. internal discussion. I suppose it depends on the audience.

      1. TrixM*

        I think the suggestion is to keep the full detail about all the options that were considered out of the main draft. Thus the ideas to “show the working” in a meeting or basically a cover email. Another option could be to use the Comment feature in Word (or GDocs). This can be used to summarise the thought process for each option at the appropriate places in the document, and is an invitation for colleagues/clients to use the same for feedback (therefore they will see the LW’s own comments first). Once the feedback interval is over, it’s easy to “resolve” all the comments for the final version. The “Inspect Document” feature is useful to check any tracked changes/comments etc have been cleared from the document.

        I think some version of these approaches will work for most, combined with a brief intro explaining that you’ve considered various options, explained below/in Word comments, and asking for the kind of feedback needed. Such as a light proofing/fact check/confirmation of proposal. Plus, of course, the obligatory, ”if there’s an option I didn’t consider, or an error, please let me know!”

  3. NeutralJanet*

    It looks like there isn’t an answer to the last question, “ Should I be the one to make sure my staff knows when people will be out?”, at the link! Am I looking in the wrong place?

  4. TimeTravlR*

    Even though you (think you) know the answer, instead of shooting it down right away, maybe start with this, “Okay, so how do you see that working with X?” Yes, it takes longer when you already know the answer, but 1) it gives them some say and 2) it helps them to work through why it wouldn’t work.

    1. JustaTech*

      That’s a useful tact to take with senior people, or when the suggestion is new/novel. It’s really hard to say that non-sarcastically when it is literally the 75th time someone suggests the same hair-brained scheme that you’ve already written a report on why it wouldn’t work (but of course the people suggesting it are new and don’t know about the report so it’s not their fault but ugh having to explain *again* that their idea violates the laws of physics/violates federal regulations/ costs 15 times as much).

      (Literally in the middle of writing this comment I had to say that “no, you can’t substitute this for that, we’ve tried, it doesn’t work”.)

      The best you can do for the new and eager is to let them finish, say that it’s a good thought and it happens we’ve already looked at it and it doesn’t work because X and Y and Z, and here’s where to find our reports on things like that.

      Unfortunately when you’re on a team who’s job is to test new ideas and see if they work and they usually don’t, you get a reputation for being negative no matter how you say it or how good your reasoning is, so then people just stop asking and then are upset when their thing doesn’t work but they’ve already invested a lot of time and money in the project.

      1. TimeTravlR*

        You’re right. I think you have to know your audience and use the approach that works best with that crowd.

        1. tessa*

          I’m still trying to figure out how to graciously handle comments disguised as questions, i.e. “Have you thought about applying X?” One of these days I WILL stand there and pull out my hair.

  5. Let me librarian that for you*

    “I thought of that too and decided to do it this way because XYZ.”

    ^ I am in much the same boat and this is my standard script.

    1. Ace in the Hole*

      This is my suggestion too. Some variations so you don’t sound like a broken record:

      – I considered that, but went with ABC because XYZ.
      – When we tried that in the past XYZ happened, ABC will help avoid those issues by…
      – I thought about that but I was concerned about XYZ – do you have ideas for how to handle that?

    2. MigraineMonth*

      I think the key is tone. Unless someone is way out of their area of expertise or discussing options is wasting a lot of time, I think it’s important to convey that you are open to suggestions (even if you can’t always implement them).

      “I thought of that too!” in a warm tone says you want to collaborate; “I thought of that too” in a flat, annoyed or distracted tone says you want the coworker to shut up.

    3. Lucky*

      How about “you would think that would work, but then again you are a total idiot”? Too direct?

      1. Mangofan*

        Just make sure you say it in a warm tone and you’re all set!

        (This isn’t a dig at the comment above yours, which makes a good point. Just wanted to be silly :-)

    4. Carit*

      This is what I was going to suggest (and do) also. The only thing I do in addition is – wherever possible- express enthusiasm for the idea. “Oh, yes – I really liked that idea, but when I tried it/worked* it through, it didn’t work because…” I’ve found that provides two benefits: 1) acknowledging their idea as credible and 2) making you look prescient.

      * Don’t say “thought it through” or “thought it all the way through” because that nearly always gets heard with an implicit “and you didn’t, you git.” Even if that wasn’t the intent.

    5. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yep. People often want things that aren’t realistically possible and if you’re the SME you’re going to have to be the dose of reality. But it goers a loooong way towards not being see as the Tyrant Who Says No To Everything if you can offer alternatives that approximate whatever the person wanted to do.

      “I had the same thought, that it’d be good to know how many people are in the crowd over time and we could ideally use aerial video to make the estimates. Unfortunately the helicopters are out of our price range and not available on short notice either. What I was thinking we can do instead is post people at some of the booths with clicker counters to sample how many visits each booth gets, and then extrapolate that data across the festival grounds.”

      Whenever I have to tell someone we can’t do X thing, I think about why they want to be able to do it, and then try to identify something we *can* do that would have similar benefits.

  6. KTC*

    I react the same way sometimes because I am also an overthinker, plus I am a verbal processor so I think out loud. Sometimes my customers put value on different things than I do, so I try to frame it as “Yes! We can do that but the tradeoff is X, are you ok with that?” It’s really not that different from what you’re saying now, just leading with a yes instead of a no.

    1. Lydia*

      And also, it doesn’t assume that your answer is automatically correct because you already considered the other option and decided they wouldn’t work. I think that’s part of the issue here. Great! You thought about it and decided it was the wrong choice. Weird thing is just because you considered your options doesn’t mean the one you went with is automatically best or even correct.

    2. Robin*

      You also have added a question that allows the customer to state their values/preferences, so it is collaborative and helps them feel/be heard. I like this approach!

    3. DrSalty*

      This is a great point. It opens a discussion whether the consequences of X are really a no go as OP initially thought. Sometimes they’re not – you never know with clients!

    4. bamcheeks*

      There’s a thing I read years ago which is either Bill Bryson or Kate Fox, which talks about how the rules for English (as in from England, not as in Anglophone) smalltalk is that you sound like you’re agreeing even if you’re actually contradicting:

      “Shame the weather‘s turned, isn’t it?”
      “Oh I know, such a pity. Mind you, I prefer this to last week — all that heat was too much for me!”
      “Oh, yes, it was a bit hot! I like the heat though— used to live in the Mediterranean and that really suited me!”
      “Ooh, the Med, lovely— I’m happier in Blighty though! Don’t like garlic much.”
      “Haha, yes, it can get a bit much. Love it myself, though, I use loads of it!”

      If you sound enthusiastic about someone’s idea, and then go on to explain why you moved away from that, they’ll remember the enthusiasm and feel satisfied by that more than actually seeing the impact of their feedback on the design. (I think it’s called the bike shed problem in design? Lots of the time people just want to feel that they are being consulted and making a contribution and being heard— and you can acknowledge that without taking it onboard in the actual design!)

      If you’re speaking to people more senior, or where they are the actual decisions makers, you can also use. “That would work very well from the aesthetics point of view— of course, it would slow things down a lot, so it’s really where you’re willing to compromise.” Hopefully you’ve already established that speed is a key driver, and you look like you’re giving the decision back to them whilst also reminding them of the success criteria. But in some cases it might be that you HAVEN’T understood the key drivers, and this is a useful place to clarify.

      1. KTC*

        Yes! Exactly. And of course we would all love to live in a world where customers/clients also fully understand the key drivers and don’t deviate throughout the project but of course nothing is that easy. Could be that something changed on their side mid-stream and now X is more important than Y, OR it could be that you did such a great job on X that Y is less important once they see the final product/proposal. I have been surprised many….many times at what is most important to a customer when it comes down to making final decisions.

  7. Volunteer Enforcer*

    Re the employee who eats too much. I get similar symptoms to her from eating too much, due in part to a chronic condition. However, if I’m careful I’m fine.

  8. Cookies for Breakfast*

    Oh hey, OP, are you me? I could totally see myself writing this letter (with added flavour of being an immigrant from a country that has a reputation for not softening language quite as much). Learning to frame responses similarly to Alison’s suggestion helps – at least, with reasonable people who are open to feedback themselves.

    Which brings me to the next thing that’s hardest for me: accepting there are people who continue to push their suggestion until it gets done, no matter how many fact-based arguments exist against it. At a former workplace, people with less domain knowledge and more decisional power would publicly praise me for my detailed thinking; then in meetings, they’d cut me off while I presented analysis because all they wanted was seeing their suggestion moved forward. I mentally checked out of all the “boss’s idea the software isn’t built to support” projects months before quitting (and, luckily, seem to be working with a team that welcomes discussion and even disagreement now). OP, hope this isn’t your situation, and lots of solidarity if so!

  9. SpecialSpecialist*

    I feel like OP#1 is a part of me that submitted a question on my behalf without me knowing…

    I’ve gone into this scenario several times lately. My go-to response is usually, “I’m fully on board with that/I think that’s a great idea/I’ve thought of doing that too, but…” and follow it up with the list of concerns and issues that I can foresee whatever it is will cause. Sometimes I have an alternate solution and sometimes we work out something completely different.

    So far, I haven’t gotten the feeling that people think I’m being negative. They seem to realize that I’ve got a perspective they don’t and can see things they can’t yet, and that’s why we’re having further discussion.

  10. Triplestep*

    tl;dr I had this problem before I started to take everyone’s ideas “and play around with them”, only to tell them later they did not work.

    I work in the building trades as a designer and project manager. I am doing mostly planning now, but for decades my job involved designing the spaces where people did their jobs: Offices, labs and retail spaces. Everyone thinks they can design space. Thanks mostly to HGTV, everyone thinks their input is at least as valuable – if not MORE valuable – than the trained and experienced architect they have sitting in front of them.

    I would bring sketches and plans to a meetings and lay out the physical limitations of the space, and the opportunities the space presented. I would show design ideas that worked around the limitations, and made the most of the opportunities. EVERY TIME I would get feedback and design ideas I knew would not work. I could see things wouldn’t fit, would not meet code, or just were not feasible for a host of other reasons. Saying “Oh, yes I tried that” or anything like it did not fly. Heaven forbid I’d try explain *in that moment* that something that had been suggested would not work. Yes, even if I could see it, I learned to pretend not to.

    The only thing that worked was to say “Oh, great idea. Let me play around with it.” Then I’d wait a suitable time after the meeting and email a follow up “Oh, too bad – there wasn’t enough space for your design idea.” In some cases I would actually waste everyone’s time by drawing out the idea and saying “Aw, too bad. This had promise but as you can see that aisle is only two feet wide now and that will not pass inspection.” (ie shift the blame to the building inspector.)

    Anyone who has a job that seems “fun and easy” knows what I’m talking about. Before I adopted this method of dealing with feedback, I would routinely hear in annual and mid-year reviews that I did not consider other people’s ideas. I have not heard that since adopting this method.

    1. Delta Delta*

      How about, “I googled the law and this is what random website says about [legal issue].” Right. Google, JD knows more about this than the attorney you’re paying. My response, depending on what it is, is often along the lines of, “oh, I see, it looks like you’re looking at an overruled Kansas Supreme Court case. In our state we follow [whatever] and it works like this.” I mean, the meter’s running, so it makes little difference to me. But I can let them down easy, as well.

    2. Gracely*

      I love this idea, and I think I’m going to need to incorporate it into my process with a couple of people I work with that have been bristling when I have to tell them their suggestions for a thing I run won’t work.

    3. Rocky*

      I use this all the time with a senior manager who has *ideas*. “Thanks for that suggestion, boss, are you ok if I take some time to play with that idea? It will push the project out a week or so.” Sometimes he wants me to explore it, sometimes he discards it himself in the interests of time.

  11. Richard Hershberger*

    LW3: I am honestly curious, does this approach to poaching clients’ talent actually mollify the client? The pretense looks pretty thin to me, and I would imagine to the client as well.

    1. Antilles*

      In my experience, that approach is a very common way of framing it.

      You’re right that it’s a flawed approach, but the truth is that there isn’t really a perfect approach that guarantees the client is perfectly happy; it’s just that the other framings tend to be much worse and this is the “most likely to be accepted” compared to the alternatives.

      Or, to put it another way: If you frame it as “he reached out to us” and the client gets mad, the reality is that client would have been mad no matter what you said; no combination of words would have prevented that.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        That last part is my point. If the worry is that the client will dump you over this, does taking this line change anything? Maybe it gives the client a graceful way to let themselves be talked down, but this would only apply if they wanted to be talked down. So as a business decision, is this a good risk?

        1. Antilles*

          Yeah, it’s definitely a tricky issue that comes down to the business decision of whether you’re willing to risk it, just how good the potential hire is, how upset you’d be to actually lose the client, etc.

          Just from my experience, I’ve worked at several companies where there’s an unwritten general practice of not hiring employees from direct clients, specifically to dodge the whole issue.

    2. anonymouse*

      I don’t think so. Company A knows exactly what happened.
      But if super employee does choose to leave, well, they had their chance.

  12. Lulu*

    With regards to getting feedback, I’m reminded of a meeting many years ago where we were asked about potentially airing a program in the morning instead of the evening. We had a discussion with pros and cons, and detailing some different thoughts we had. Then my boss got mad and said the decision was made and he wasn’t looking for feedback. That’s when I realized that he’d told us what was going to happen and then invited feedback in a general way, but actually didn’t want a discussion. We’d all misunderstood what he was looking for, and were taken aback by the sudden shift from him.

    So my thought with this situation is: Do you actually want feedback at these meetings? If people need to feel heard, perhaps you can send the document by email ahead of time and say something like “If you have any specific qualms or suggestions, send them to me” and then you can do what you want with those email responses instead of taking up meeting time and having to address them individually. Or maybe you share an earlier draft by email, when you might still have room for changes. Or maybe you just present it and don’t ask for feedback. If there’s a specific type of feedback you want, specify that: “The design is finalized, but please let me know if you see any glaring typos.”

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      Great response!

      I agree particularly with your last point. The solution is to share a 30% draft and solicit feedback then, rather than waiting until 100%. Then the feedback may actually be helpful, before the overthinking phase.

      I suspect OP may say- “Well, it’s a 5 page report, it’s not worth micro-managing with a draft review.” And if that’s really the case, I would re-direct them to your first point: is this kind of feedback session really necessary? And what kind of feedback are you actually open to? If it’s limited- just let your reviewers know.

  13. Cringing 24/7*

    Am I the only one who is wondering if Stacia from letter 2 thought it would sound better to say “ate” too much as a cover for when she “drank” too much? Either way, though, obviously the attendance and reliability is what’s at issue more so than the actual reason that she’s absent.

    1. Phony Genius*

      She could be covering up for any number of excuses. If she is lying, then she’s just making matters worse.

      1. Cringing 24/7*

        Yeah, if she’s lying, that’s not ideal – I’m just also wondering if this problem would be as noticeably flagged in OP’s mind if Stacia hadn’t mentioned a reason at all. Just a quick, “I’m unwell and will need to be out today” or something just might not have stuck in the mind or been as noticeable as the *very* specific and oddly repetitive “I ate too much.”

        1. It Might Be Me*

          This is a good point. I’ve often had to tell people who report to me that I don’t need all their details unless their requesting a medical accommodation. No, I don’t need to know all about your colonoscopy. Just ask for the time off and put “medical”.

          It applies to calling in as well. I can address the reliability issue and use the script Alison provided.

        2. HD*

          Yeah, “ate too much” sounds weird and fake. I think the last time I told anyone I ate too much I was six years old. It sounds like either a lie to cover up something else or a really weak reason for getting sick that could be easily fixed.

          1. mlem*

            Or someone who (knowingly or otherwise) has a mild celiac condition that overeating (X gluten-bearing foods) overwhelmed … or someone with a possibly undiagnosed gall bladder issue … or someone experiencing gastroparesis …

            I’m not trying to diagnose-in-comments; I’m just pointing out that there really could be conditions in which “ate too much” led to the described symptoms, and Stacia might or might not know the connection. (Alison’s advice would apply regardless.)

            1. HD*

              I get the point you’re making, but “ate too much” is still a ridiculous and childishly TMI-sounding excuse for missing work, regardless of the underlying problem.

              1. BubbleTea*

                It might well be the literal truth though. I had an ex whose medical condition meant that the definition of “too much” fluctuated and could only be determined post fact. It was very frustrating and impossible to control.

            2. AnonyChick*

              This (what mlem) said is pretty much what I was going to say. Before my celiac diagnosis, I was just so sick, so frequently, but I couldn’t understand why. I tried to keep track of when it happened and parse out reasons (I wasn’t looking at gluten because I was mistakenly told it WASN’T celiac), but it was really hard. I can easily see someone trying to figure out why they were getting sick, and incorrectly coming up with “I ate too much” rather than whatever the actual medical cause was.

              NOTE: this isn’t to say anything about what the answer is to OP’s question, just that “Stacia is telling what she thinks is the truth about why she’s sick” and “Stacia may very well have an unknown medical condition (which would have to be handled differently)” aren’t at all mutually exclusive.

  14. AthenaC*

    #1: Oh – I know this one! I run into this quite a bit.

    A little bit of acting goes a long way – pretend this is the first time you’ve heard this idea, and then act like you’re “thinking out loud” while you ask them questions to lead them down the thought process you’ve already had. Then at the end of it they feel like it’s their decision and they take ownership of the outcome.

  15. DivergentStitches*

    I had bariatric surgery last year and yeah, when I overeat, I get very sick (part of the reason I got surgery!)

    Every now and then, something I eat may make me sick and I might need to go lie down or something, so I take an extra hour to recover and use PTO.

    But I’ve never called out for a whole day because of it. And I’d never say that was the reason, I just say I’m “not feeling well.”

  16. L&D_Lady*

    You’re doing all the work and brainstorming and then pulling them together when you already have the answer. It sounds like you’re poorly describing your expectations for the meeting to those involved (that you’re looking for input about other solutions rather than tweaking a final draft). Either tweak how you communicate your expectations for them meeting or do actually include them in the full process. “But I can’t see a way to avoid it other than not putting in serious thought when I first do the work.” It’s not about not putting in serious thought, but including team members in that though process before you’ve reached your conclusion.

  17. Jane Bingley*

    Re LW3: When I applied for a job with a company that I knew would cause allegations of “poaching”, I was very glad when they named the issue during my first interview. Near the end, the interviewer said something to the effect of “[current company] has reacted badly in the past when employees have left to join us. How do you think you’d handle it?” It allowed me to name that I recognized it as a potential problem, that I had a good relationship with my manager (which wasn’t true of some past employees), and that I was comfortable naming that I was choosing to leave because of cultural issues and wasn’t being poached (the truth!).

    It made it a lot easier for all of us – I got confirmation of what I suspected and was able to get ahead of a potential issue, and my new company felt a lot better about hiring me without damaging an important business relationship.

  18. anonymouse*

    This. It just gets rid of any feeling that people are acting shady, or it’s a secret or anything other than the natural order of business.
    It happens. Admit it.
    Move on.

  19. Esmeralda*

    Plan to spend time explaining why. Consider that time part of the time you allot for the project. Consider the explanations as part of the tasks for the project.

    Right now you are (1) annoyed at the time suck, so reframe the time required and (2) taking it kind of personally. In general, assume good intent — people are probably not implying that you’re not the expert or that you don’t know what you’re doing. They have an idea, or they are trying to be helpful. And you note too that sometimes you get a good suggestion.

    The other thing is, do you have to respond yes/no in the moment? Can you say, “thanks for the suggestion/that’s a really interesting point, let me give it some thought.”

    You can of course put a deadline on input — “if you have any suggestions, please get them to me by EOB today, I gotta get this baby out the door!” Suggestions that come after your deadline: “I’m so sorry, but it’s past the deadline for suggestions, we had to move on to [next step]”

  20. El+l*

    Two suggestions:

    First, OP, I actually think you should take that analysis and do a little more. Namely, figure out if there are multiple acceptable options – and when you have to have it exactly one way. Because you won’t always win, and you must sometimes pick your battles. That’s work. Sometimes the best you can do is guide them to something not bad. So figure out in advance what that is.

    Second, that said, worry less about the no and just keep it more in your tone. “Weeelll…yeah, that seemed interesting to me too. And then I thought of [unacceptable failure condition]…” In other words, take them on your own journey for a minute.

  21. Fluffy Fish*

    Stacia – frankly she’s giving out entirely too much info on why she is calling out sick and I think that’s muddying the waters for OP.

    I actually disagree with Alison on including the bit about eating too much.

    It doesn’t matter *what* she’s sick with, so ignore it. It only matters that she’s calling out sick a number of times that is excessive in a 3 month time period. She needs to be at work regularly. Explain that you are willing to work with her if there is a medical issue, and what that would look like – a flexible schedule, remote work, whatever it is, and what documentation you would need. If you’re in the US it’s complicated a bit in that even if you’re a large enough company, she hasn’t been there long enough for fmla. So be sure what you can reasonably accommodate.

  22. Wendy Darling*

    I have IBS and eating too much is one of my triggers. When I first developed it I definitely made myself sick via eating too much a bunch of times, especially since “too much” is a moving target for me and depends on what other triggers I have going on. So I totally understand how someone could end up too sick to work due to overeating 5x in 3 months!

    Luckily for me I worked from home for the duration of the time I was figuring out how to manage my IBS, so I never had to call in sick, but I probably would have if I’d been in-office at the time.

    That said “I’m sick because I ate too much” is WAY more information than anyone’s manager requires! If my gut issues ever impact my work I just give a vague “not feeling well” and leave it at that.

  23. Jessica Fletcher*

    Does anyone know if the Inc stories are eventually reposted here? If yes, how long? I can’t afford a subscription but these are interesting questions!

    1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      It’s the other way around: the Inc stories are things that were posted here years ago.

      Sometimes the “you may also like” under the post includes one or more of the stories in question (often but not always the same text as in the new Inc posting).

  24. AnticompetitiveClauses*

    I’ve never had a job or contract where it would have been okay to go work for a competitor or client vendor or where it would have been okay to hire someone from one. There’s usually a legal cooling off period, most often a year, but sometimes 6 months or two years. I once had a job offer recinded because they changed the job description at the end of the process and it morphed into a competitive situation (to a job I’d been laid off from three months earlier). Do people just ignore these things and hope there’s no legal action?

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      Most people don’t have them, or if they do, they are limited. The legally dependable ones typically restrain your ability to disclose proprietary information, and sometimes set a time frame on how long to wait before you can poach members of your former team.

      You’re also right that many of these agreements aren’t legally enforceable. For example, a company cannot restrict your ability to make a living outside of their walls- but that’s between you and a lawyer. You can even ask the legal team at the new company to review your non-compete and agree to defend you if necessary.

  25. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

    Depending on where you are, and the details, those clauses may be unenforceable.

  26. Erin*

    Sometimes these responses are disheartening for me. I finally have a job with guaranteed sick leave, 12 days a year. This year I have burned all but 4 days of it on appointments for myself, my kids with special needs appointments or illness, a family member’s illness, and days I was sick. If this person’s job offers sick leave to cover their absence, and that’s what they’re using, why is the number of days they call out sick a problem? Why is taking one or two sick days a month a reliability issue? Are there really people who only get sick once a year for two days, and whose kids don’t get sick?

    1. WS*

      I think a major part of this is that the person in question has only been there three months, so even in my country which has okay (and mandatory) sick leave entitlements, five days in the first three months would have used it up.

      They also don’t know if this is a major problem pending or just a fluke of these few months, and the person isn’t explaining further.

    2. EchoGirl*

      I think it could be the weirdness of the explanation rather than the call-outs themselves. As a couple of people have mentioned elsewhere in the thread, a more vague explanation might have made the whole thing barely move the needle, but the fact that employee is specifically framing it as being due to a thing that’s seemingly easily avoidable is what’s raising eyebrows.

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      They are a new employee and have called out 5 times in 3 months – that’s a lot baring a medical issue or, yes, being responsible for sick dependents.

      Most employers are going to be concerned by this.

      To put it in perspective, you have used 8 in an entire year.

    4. Irish Teacher*

      Yeah, there are definitely people who only get sick one or two days a year. Until I had my thyroid removed 3 years ago, it would be very unusual for me to miss even one or two days in a year. I just…rarely get sick. I now have a couple of appointments each year, related to my lack of thyroid, so I do tend to miss at least part of 3 or 4 days a year, but that’s all. I am also one of that increasingly rare group of people who still hasn’t had covid, so clearly, I am lucky with regard to illness. And I don’t have any children, so that reduces the number of calls on my time too (plus, we do have some specific leaves in Ireland for needs related to children.

      But people’s health is different (and can change at any moment, as my thyroid experience shows) as are their number of responsibilities so the amount of leave needed can differ from person to person through no fault of their own.

      But it sounds like the issue here isn’t the number of times she has called out, but the fact that it is the same reason each time and that the reason…sounds odd. It makes it sound like she is eating a whole chocolate cake in one go or something (From Roald Dahl’s Matilda) and making herself sick. As others have said, this would be an odd explanation even once, but hey, once I’d be inclined to assume a party or something where she overindulged, but 5 times in three months? My guess would be that she has some underlying condition, but the way she phrased it makes it sound like “I keep overindulging even though past experience SHOULD have told me it will make me so sick I won’t be able to work the next day.” Which doesn’t sound very responsible.

      Plus, as WS implies, people DO come in for more scrutiny their first few months in a job because they don’t have a track record yet, so their boss isn’t going to know whether they are somebody who wouldn’t dream of lying and who must be genuinely sick in order to call in or whether they are somebody who just calls in because they feel like going to the beach for the day.

  27. Don't be mean to Pixley*

    I had exactly the same issue at an old job – feedback came from a colleague that I was dismissive and abrupt and that I never listened to his ideas (because I’d generally already considered and rejected them).

    I learned to remove the word “no” when responding to ideas. I’d say things like “oh, that’s interesting, how would we reconcile with X” or “cool idea, my concern would be Y, how would you fit that into your idea?”. Often he’d learn something as well as feeling listened to. It took a lot of effort and tongue biting at first, but it became more natural over time.

  28. bopper*

    “But the end result is a dynamic where I am just saying a litany of “No, because then we would have to change X, no because that would conflict with Y, no that wouldn’t work, no no no.” I have these reasons immediately at hand because it’s just the thinking I already put into it. But it may look like I’m shooting it down automatically because my response is so quick.”

    What if you just used warmer language? First acknowledge them and then walk them through you r thinking.
    “You know, that is exactly what I thought at first too! But then I was wondering how that affected X…and I saw if we changed X it would t conflict with Y so I ended up with this solution. Do you have any aspects I haven’t considered?”

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