I delivered a workshop recently where I asked participants what keeps them from saying “no.” Within seconds, more than 20 unique reasons appeared in the chat. The list included:
Have you ever had one of these thoughts? If so, you’re definitely not alone. Most people don’t say no because they ultimately fear the fallout, whether that’s disappointing others, losing respect, or even getting fired. However, after coaching hundreds of individuals over the years, I can confidently say that the fallout is rarely as bad as you fear.
Saying “no” is the best thing to do for you and others. Rather than a behavior that creates a lot of negative consequences, it actually introduces benefits to all kinds of work (and personal) relationships. Holding a boundary creates respect between you and a superior. Between you and a peer, it helps strengthen peer status, preventing one of you from being seen as slightly “above” or “below” the other. Saying no to a direct report sets a good example for that person to set their own boundaries and offer appropriate input. Finally, it creates healthy, sustainable client relationships.
By saying no, you are signaling that something else is more important. So in effect, saying no to one thing is saying yes to something else. That “something else” doesn’t always have to be another task or project. It may be something you need to do for yourself like eating, sleeping, resting, or investing in important relationships.
No matter how superhuman you may feel at times, we all have finite energy and hours in the day. When you say “yes” all the time, you are not just getting more done. You are actually saying “no” to other things. Sometimes those “other things” are less important, but for those who tend to say “yes” all the time, typically this behavior results in delays or failure to do what is actually the highest priority.
How do you know when to say yes and when to say no? With my clients, I spend a lot of time clarifying goals, values, and basic human needs. These are the filter through which you can decide what is more important and what deserves a “no” from you.
As with any topic, there is nuance in saying no. Here are three behaviors to avoid, and two ways to make saying “no” easier on you and your relationships.
I appreciate this “three ways not to say no” framework I learned during my Flow Research Collective training.
Accommodating: saying yes when you wanted to say no. You may not have actually said “no” but you and the person who requested something from you can tell your heart’s not in it. You are giving a confusing message that has some of the negative consequences of a no but none of the benefits.
Attacking: a destructive delivery of your “no.” Holding a boundary may result in a negative emotion from someone, but you’ll only make it worse by being sarcastic, aggressive, or rude.
Avoiding: saying neither yes nor no. You may think you are not “answering” the request, but avoiding actually is a “yes” or a “no” depending on the context and how those around you react to your avoidance.
When saying “no,” it’s always important to strike a balance between protecting your energy and supporting others. These two practices can help you avoid “all or nothing” when you hold a boundary.
Let someone else choose. At first this may seem counterintuitive. This is all about standing in your power and sticking to your goals, values, and health, right? This method is about saying yes to some things someone is requesting of you, but not all. It’s a great way to find out someone else’s real priorities so you can protect your energy. Prioritize the tradeoffs, and provide options with a clear breakdown of the consequences, then let the other person choose which path to take.
Rule-based no. This is a great method to help you stay in integrity with yourself. We are the biggest violators of our own boundaries because it can be so hard to say “no” in the moment. So, try establishing rules like “If I have worked more than 8 hours today, I will always say no to more work.” “I go out for drinks with friends no more than twice a week.” “I always eat dinner with my family.” “I don’t skip my scheduled workouts.”
If you are not used to holding boundaries, it will feel uncomfortable at first. Be prepared for this by adding a short mantra to your morning routine, and make sure to give yourself grace. Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t say no, focus on congratulating yourself when you succeed. Don’t be tempted to backtrack (saying no then saying yes). Backtracking a “no” can be worse than not saying no in the first place because it causes you to lose trust with yourself. You’ve got this. And if you need more support in creating healthy habits like saying “no,” reach out anytime.