That’s a lot of “no’s” right there. No is one of the most powerful words in the English language, yet one of the hardest ones to say, especially at work. I used to be really bad at saying no. You’d ask me for anything, a personal favour, take charge of a project at work, help train a new staff member – even doing my boss’ job during holidays. I love saying yes. It makes me feel valued, and I have a tendency to help and please people. Sounds familiar?
I have gotten better at saying no, but my natural preference and behaviour style puts a yes on the tip of my tongue first. And I know I’m not alone. According to research, most people are wired to say yes.
‘The oldest, shortest words – yes and no – are those that require the most thought.’ – Pythagoras
Why is it so hard to say No?
We are harmony seeking creatures and want to make our bosses and friends happy, which turns some of us into chronic people pleasers. We also don’t want to appear weak or be seen as not collaborative – “yes, I’ll take one for the team”. We feel pressured to say Yes to more work out of fear of being seen as an underachiever. We hold ourselves to extremely high standards, and it’s hard to admit that we just can’t do it all.
The paradox is that we say yes to prove how well we are doing, yet, saying Yes too often happens at the expense of our performance and often our mental health. And it seems, the more passionate you are about your work, the higher the risk for burnout. Research from Duke University shows that passionate employees are more likely to be taken advantage of and asked to do extra and unpaid work, even on weekends.
‘Prioritising requires reflection, reflection takes time, and many of the executives I meet are so busy racing just to keep up. They don’t believe they have time to stop and think about much of anything. Too often – and masochistically – they default to ‘yes. Saying yes to requests feels safer, avoids conflict, and takes less time than pausing to decide whether or not the request is truly important.’ – Tony Schwartz
First, change your mindset and draw clear boundaries
It’s hard to say No when we still believe ‘Yes’ means success. If you say Yes and overtax yourself, your work and relationships will suffer, and no one will benefit from all your hard work. Reassess your values and what work-life balance means for you. Saying No can be really empowering. It is testimony to yourself that you are important too. Remember, every time you say Yes to something, you say No to something else.
Stay true to your priorities and limits. Don’t fall into the ‘too nice’ trap and continually break your own rules. Your actions must match your words, so don’t say Yes, when you mean No.
Stop associating No with a negative response. Accept that No is part of your daily communication and just another decision you make. A No doesn’t always result in an adversary reaction; in fact, you will be surprised how much better people react to a No. Just deliver it well.
‘It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.’ – Steve Jobs
If you have the option to say ‘no’, here are seven strategies to say No more often:
Pause. Take your time to decide if you want to commit. A Yes answer might increase your workload, and a No answer may cut off an opportunity. Weigh up first what serves you best. Don’t let a passion project get in the way of getting more important work done.
Offer alternatives and options. You want to be helpful, but you don’t want to just say Yes to the request as it stands; consider a timeline that works for you, giving it to someone else but with your supervision, or share the task with someone else. Similarly, when you direct a request at someone, especially when you know they love autonomy, give them options like time, extra resources or approach.
Reciprocal. Use ‘I do something for you, you do something for me.’ This way you may be able to offload a task or project to make room for the new one without overburdening yourself. It’s a fair exchange, not a No.
Say Yes to the person and no to the task. Be clear in your communication that your No is not directed at the person, but that it is a No to the request. That starts with your own mindset of believing that you are, in fact, not letting the person down. You’re simply rejecting a request that you can’t take on.
Brief explanation. Show your logic and explain why you have to say No. Don’t lose yourself in detail but give an honest and valuable excuse. People making a request may not understand your budget limitations, current workload lack of resources. You can apply the two-sentence rule: ‘Sorry, I’m not able to.’ Then one sentence with your explanation.
Confidence and conviction. Say I don’t, not I can’t. Research by Boston College found saying, “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” when telling someone “no” freed participants from demands. “I can’t” shows a feebleness and uncertainty, like your explanation is on shaky ground. “I don’t” implies a conviction, you’ve set boundaries for yourself, and you honour them — it exudes stability.
Ask for permission to say No. Often we will be in a situation where we feel we can’t just say No. For example when our boss gives us a task. Try to reason with them by honouring their authority whilst maintain your integrity. Ask them if you may share your reasons why taking on a project or request might impact other work or deadlines. If they don’t want to hear it, you will do your best, but often bosses are not aware of your entire workload.
Say No without saying No technique: Mirroring
Bestselling author and ex-hostage negotiator Chris Voss explains one of the most powerful negotiation techniques that help you to guide a conversation, buy you time and get your counterpart to talk a bit more. When you get good at it, you can use it to say No without saying No.
Here is how it works:
When someone requests something of you and you are caught off guard, use your late-night FM DJ voice (calm, steady, slow, in control voice) and simply repeat the last 1-3 words they said with an upward inflection, like a question:
‘Mary, can you please get all the reports ready for the meeting?’
You: ‘All the reports?’
Instead of repeating the same thing just louder (which would have happened if you’d asked ‘What do you mean by all reports?’), the other person will most likely explain and that gives you time and more context to reason with them.
Check out this video where Chris Voss himself explains mirroring.
No matter which technique you use to start staying No more often, the important thing is to start somewhere. Form some muscle memory around saying No. The more you practice saying No, the easier it becomes and the more you will do it when it really counts.
‘The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.’ – Tony Blair
Do you want to say No more often? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about how we can work together.