Saying NO is one of the most difficult things on earth. In some cases, you may genuinely want to do the thing that’s requested of you—you just have a limitation of some kind. In other cases, you know deep down that you shouldn’t say YES because you simply don’t have enough interest or stake in the request—but you don’t want to let anyone down, disappoint, or be perceived as rigid, unkind or negative.
For these reasons and many more, I’ve never been good at saying NO when I’m asked to help, volunteer, or pitch in on a project or task. I’m so bad at this that I always end up spread too thin, with too much on my plate. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m not doing anything really well.
So I just took a whole workshop on how to say NO, and what I learned blew my mind—in a very simple way. I wanted to share what I learned in this post, and I’ll soon write a follow-up post with more on this subject, including actionable tips on how to say NO with grace.
A Smart “NO” Is Much Different Than a “NO”
Let me start by saying that I’m not recommending a naysayers movement here. I’m recommending a smart way to ensure you’re aligning your life values with your actual life and spending your time wisely. You can say “YES” to as many things as you want, but I want to make sure you understand the risks of saying YES, and give you some different shapes and colors to the word NO.
If you say YES to any request that comes your way, it means you’re saying NO to some of the things you really care about.
No one has enough time to do all of the things they love to do and care about, so life becomes about prioritizing the most important to-dos—the things closest to your values and nearest to your heart. If you end up saying YES to things you’re not passionate about or that don’t fall at the top your priority list, you won’t have time for the things that are most important to you.
Decide what those values and priorities are for you, and align your YES’s accordingly.
Make sure your “YES’s” are realistic, and in some cases, make them conditional.
Conditional YES’s are usually received better than “NOs.” They convey the message that you want to help, but you’ll need to shift the parameters or requirements to ensure you reach the finish line.
If your boss asks you to tackle a project in a too-tight timeline, but your value is to fiercely meet deadlines without fail, you’ll have to say NO or you’ll fail. Unless, you make your YES conditional upon whether or not he/she extends the deadline or places more resources on the project to pitch in and help you get it done on time. Depending on the nature of your boss, he/she may not realize that the timeline was too tight unless you communicate that with a: “In order for me to do that…” or a “Yes, BUT….”
A response including “YES, but not right now,” also falls into this category. If you have genuine intention to complete the task and can foresee a time in the future where you’ll find the time, then discuss timeline options with whoever is asking.
A YES when you mean a NO comes with a high risk of failure
When you overcommit yourself—a.k.a. when you say YES to too many favors, requests, and projects—you will likely end up setting the wrong expectations, to which you end up under delivering on all sides. You simply cannot do everything at once, and even a well-intentioned YES could end with you falling short—both with the things you do and don’t want to do.
And what happens when you set expectations you cannot meet? Others end up lacking trust, respect and confidence in you. Sure, it could mean they stop asking you to pitch in—but that may be for the wrong reasons.
Reframe your NOs in your mind
A NO to something you don’t want to do, means a YES to something you do want to do, if you look at it from a higher level.
Think of saying NO to things that don’t directly align with your values or move your goals forward as a way of saying YES to the things that truly matter to you. If you say “YES” to the requests of others, it means you’re living on someone else’s agenda. Whereas, if you offer a diplomatic and gracious “NO,” that means you’ll have that time and energy for your top priorities and projects.
Explain your NO
This may sound like it goes without saying, but if you recognize that you can’t commit, just be honest. Most people can relate to having a busy schedule and full plate. Explain why you can’t pitch in openly for a mutual understanding.
The Cost of a Maybe
If you don’t want to do something that you think you should do, you are at risk for saying “maybe” or “I’m not sure, I’ll let you know.” This can be harmful to both you and the person asking for your help. If you don’t have the time or desire to take on a task or request, just be direct and honest; it will save you both time and energy:
- The person won’t be waiting on you for an answer. If you say “maybe,” odds are that will turn into a “NO.” During the time you were wavering, the person could have found someone else for the job (perhaps someone that has more time and passion for the job) instead of waiting on you, who likely won’t follow through anyway since you don’t have the motivation.
- You won’t waste your energy on figuring out how to respond, turn down the task diplomatically, or remove yourself from the favor without hurting anyone’s feelings. The longer you wait to express the honest truth that you don’t have the time or interest (or whatever limitation you have), the harder it becomes to turn down.
The Bottom Line of NO
The next time you find yourself saying YES to meeting a coworker for coffee, planning an office social event, or reworking a friend of a friend’s resume for free, ask yourself if you have the capacity and drive to follow through on it, as well as your own top priorities.
If the answer is NO, then yours should be, too.
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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.