The right “no” spoken at the right time can change the course of history. To give one example, Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat was exactly the right moment to help propel the civil rights movement forward.
Have you ever said yes to avoid conflict? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend or family member? Do you have a hard time saying “no”? We have great reasons to fear saying no. We worry that we’ll miss out on an opportunity. We’re scared of rocking the boat, burning bridges or disappointing someone that we like and respect. We feel guilty. We are worried about damaging our relationships. As hard as it can be to say no, failing to do so can cause us to become over-committed, resentful, feel self-loathing and increase the likelihood of dropping the ball and/or burning out.
Here are some things to consider when someone wants your time and how to say “no”:
- Separate the decision from the relationship – remember that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Consider that if someone truly cares about your well-being, then they won’t want you to say yes and resent the situation and them as well.
- You don’t have to use the word no. Saying phrases such as, “I’m flattered that you thought of me, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time, or “I would very much like to, but I’m over-committed” are examples of how to say no without saying no.
- Focus on the trade-off – what will you have to give up to make it happen and is it worth it?
- A clear no is better than a vague yes. Try to avoid giving a noncommittal answer like “I will try to make it work or “I might be able to”. Have the courage to say no so that you build the reputation of being a reliable person.
- Be aware that someone’s immediate reaction to your saying no may be annoyance, disappointment, or even anger. When their feelings wear off, hopefully respecting you and your time will be the outcome. You are showing people that your time is valuable and in turn you may indirectly be setting an example for them.
- Depending on the request, you may consider answering with a soft “no but”. For instance, I can’t do it right now, but when I finish this project or get some things off my plate I will let you know and see if you still need some help.
- Postpone an immediate reply. The phrase “let me check my calendar and get back to you”, allows you time to really consider the time and effort before committing.
- Use the “take something off my plate” tactic. For example, if your boss or a senior leader makes a request, one thing you could consider saying is, “Yes, I can do it. What should I de-prioritize (from the other tasks that they’re aware are on your plate)?”
- It is flattering to be asked to help, however, sometimes people don’t care if you’re the one helping, they just need the help. Think of those you know who might be in the position to help, then refer the person to them by saying “I can’t do it, but X might be available.
Stephen Covey said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically – to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
So embrace saying “no” when it’s for your bigger “yes”!