In a recent post, I wrote all about the importance of using the two-letter word: No. It’s not easy, that’s for sure—especially when you’re genuinely interested in something. But when there’s no time, space, or energy for it, NO is the smartest way to go.
For a detailed explanation of why adding the word “no” to your vocabulary is important to ensure you’re aligning your life values with your actual life, (including the risks that come with saying “yes” too often,) read the first article in this two-part series.
If you already have a good handle on why it’s important to say no when you’re spread thin, but have trouble actually using the word, here are four steps on how to say no that won’t offend the person who’s requesting your time or attention.
Create Personal Policies
Lots of businesses, families, cities and organizations have clear rules that you just cannot argue with. The idea with personal policies is to create your own set of rules that support your most important endeavors and align well with your values.
Most stores have store policies posted right by the register so you can see ahead of time the guidelines around what you can return, when, and under which conditions. If you try to request a return without a receipt and receipts are required, most likely you’ll get a “that’s against our policy.” You can talk to the clerk and the store manager, but if it’s the policy of that store, your argument won’t get very far.
But in our personal lives, we often don’t even know our own rules, therefore we end up bending what might be our core values and important priorities. If privacy and personal space is a value for you, it wouldn’t work out well for you if your husband invites house guests to stay with you two weeks out of every month. If you had a policy that you were only able to accommodate houseguests for three days at a time, once a month, it would be understood as a rule. No questions asked.
Some people confuse personal policies with being a “nay sayer.” But the truth is:
- When you say yes to something, what are you going to have to say no to?
- When you say no to something, what is it that you are now open to say yes to?
Action Plan Step 1: Make a list of your values in each of these categories:
- Purpose in life
Action Plan Step 2: Create a policy around each of your values. For example, if your value in relationships is to spend more time with your kids and you determine that picking them up from school each day is the most important thing you can do, your policy may be that you do not schedule any meetings between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.
Make Your Policies Known
Just like a store has their policy posted everywhere—on your receipt, at the register, on signs—you can also make your policies known up front.
Talk to your colleagues, boss and clients and clue them in on your new personal rules. If everyone knows your policy ahead of time, it’ll be easier to adhere to it. Send a quick email letting your team know that you are blacking out the 2:30 to 3:30 hour on your calendar and why. Then block it out on your Outlook calendar so everyone can see that you are busy at this time. If you already have standing meetings scheduled at this time, shift them to a new time slot.
Explain Your Limitations
A common request is of time, which is a tricky and subjective currency. Many people will want your help and attention, where you might not be willing to spend that currency on a particular project or cause. Next time you feel yourself wanting to say no but at risk for saying yes, stop, pause, and articulate your thoughts.
Try this: “I really like this idea, finding the ______ (insert limitation here,) will be my biggest challenge.” For example, “Finding the time will be my biggest challenge” or “Finding the right resource will be my biggest challenge.”
Most of the time, people just need to understand why you’re saying no. Allow them to exercise their muscle of empathy for how much you have on your plate and explain that it’s not for lack of interest, just lack of _____. (time, money, expertise…)
Point Them in the Right Direction
If someone is asking you to teach them something, tell them how you learned. Instead of an outright “no” or spending a big chunk of your time in teaching mode, demonstrate your desire to help them by giving them book recommendations, websites, and other tools that helped you grow in that particular area.
You can also try connecting them with someone in your network that may be better qualified, more willing, and have more time to assist them. This could make for a win-win if you have someone in mind that not only has the expertise and time, but also more interest in helping. Who knows? Their personal policy could be to mentor more rookies starting out in the field.
Saying no doesn’t need to be a negative exchange. If communicated well, it can be an authentic and direct way to convey when you have a limitation on a request that’s come your way.
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.