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The Challenge of Saying “No”
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The Challenge of Saying “No”

Watershape designer, landscape architect and educator, Jason Brownlee, is typically in the habit of embracing the opportunities that come his way. But as he explains here, sometimes saying no, or at least, not now, is the more beneficial response. That’s especially true in the current market where the demand is pushing watershapers in all categories to their practical limits.

By Jason Brownlee

Watershapers are in the business of saying “yes” and these days, we’ve been saying it a lot. We say yes to homeowners looking to upgrade their at-home environment, we say yes to the spectrum of design possibilities and the process of imagining on our clients’ behalf, and we say yes to all of the complicated processes and onsite machinations involved in making others aquatic dreams come true. It’s what we do.

There are, however, times when we also have to learn to say “no” to some clients and some situations in order to do a good job at saying yes. While declining to take on a particular job does run counter to our can-do spirit, and the desire to maximize revenues, there are times when “no” is absolutely necessary.

Because we are in the business of making people happy, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable telling a prospective client that you’re not going to take on their project. I know I certainly don’t enjoy disappointing people and in the broad view I apply a high bar when it comes to declining work. By the same token, I have learned to say no and am thankful I have.


These says, saying no takes on a little bit different meaning because of the pandemic-induced demand, which has continued unabated for nearly a year and a half. To be clear, for the most part, I don’t say no, per se, but will instead tell clients that they are going to have to wait, and that can mean many months, or longer. Fact is, there is only so much one person or one company can do within a given time frame and if you don’t exactly say no, we are in the position of having to say not now.

Make no mistake, there are risks associated with doing too much at any given time. Doing anything in a hurry can be a formula for substandard results. Yes, there are some people who are stellar under pressure, but in the artsy and craftsy world of watershaping, you do need a reasonable amount of time to allow for the creative process and careful execution. When you are always behind and rushing, that’s when you’re most likely to make a mistake.

Also, there is the sanity factor, we all need breaks and time between work to restore our energy and mental focus. I know people in the industry who have for now forsaken the idea of a vacation and off days, those are spent working instead.

I realize that in the current demand, there’s a desire to make the most of the opportunities that come our way, but making the most of a given situation does require being in a mental and physical state where we can give it your best effort. Saying no, even if it’s just temporarily, can be essential in managing your own workload and marshalling your internal resources. Great work takes time and you have to be sure to give yourself enough time to perform at your best. 

With the rush of the current level of activity coupled with the expected shortages and delays associated with the pandemic, no one is particularly surprised to hear that they’re going to have to wait for their projects to get started. Because I do strictly design work, I am able to get to the backlog within a month or two, as opposed to the far more extended construction delays.

For the most part, prospective clients are understanding and while some may take their business elsewhere, most that I’ve had to delay do stick around. In some situations, I’ll refer a prospect to another designer or builder in their area, and I’ve had others send clients my way. It’s a simple matter of asking them to wait and hoping they go along with it.

All of that said, it’s still not always easy to give homeowners an answer other than an enthusiastic affirmative. Gaining a comfort level with saying no requires a level of self-confidence and the belief that you can afford to step away from situations that don’t lend themselves to the best outcome.


Of course, the current demand isn’t the only reason to say no to some clients. There are those people who you just know are going to be difficult. Those who want to whittle down your price, seem inordinately demanding or alternatively indecisive or worst of all, just plain rude. Those are all entirely valid reasons to, always politely, decline to take on their projects.

Many watershapers I know will attest to the benefits of refusing difficult clients, meaning those who are constantly complaining about how much things cost, who are almost invariably the clients who will frequently change their minds as they find ways to waste your time and add aggravation to your day. When it comes to clients in that category, saying no can be both empowering and a matter of self-preservation.

There are also those situations where a client or even another professional involved in a given project, such as an architect, want to build something that simply isn’t feasible, or not possible given their budget. While in theory, almost anything is possible given an ample budget and access to the right engineering services, there are situations where the design concept in play is not doable in any practical sense.

Maybe they want to locate the watershape in a place that would require extensive geotechnical work in the form of caissons and grade beams that would far exceed the budget, or perhaps they’re looking to integrate the pool or spa into an existing structure that would require inordinately expensive remodeling.

While you never want to douse somebody’s imagination, being the one’s with the technical background in watershaping, it is up to us to become gatekeepers when it comes to what can and cannot be done. In other words, sometimes saying no is part of keeping your tethered to reality.

It’s true that “no” is not always the easiest thing to say, especially when it means turning away from revenue, even if on a temporary basis, but sometimes, it’s absolutely necessary to make of the times you say yes.

Jason Brownlee owner of J. Brownlee Design, a Nashville-based design firm specializing in custom and creative outdoor living projects for residential and resort environments. He serves as the principal designer and works collaboratively with both homeowners and contractors across the country to develop a complete outdoor lifestyle design for his clients. Brownlee is a registered member of the Society of WaterShape Designers and a member of Genesis University faculty.

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