Most People Never Learn to Say “No”
Consider the case of Anna, a manager in a large accounting firm. Anna is a great team player and readily pitches in when her team’s workload gets heavy, especially during the tax season. She covers for peers when they have other commitments—personal and professional—and often stays late. Anna is a people-pleaser. She’s also one of those people who can’t say “no”: she spends too much time and energy working on others’ priorities while setting aside her own personal and professional priorities.
Consider also the case of Chuck, a selfless project manager at an engineering business. He not only passively gives in to requests to train new engineers, but also accepts all of his peer-managers’ unwanted assignments. Chuck reluctantly accedes to whatever work his boss imposes even if the task has little relation to Chuck’s span of responsibilities.
The problem with Anna and Chuck is that they cave in easily. They cannot assert themselves, stick to their guns, and bring themselves to saying “no.” Their inability to utter the simple two-letter word when they must and can makes them feel like they have no control over their life. They feel burned out and are often on the fast track to an emotional meltdown.
Learning to Say “No” Can Get You Ahead
There are many reasons people struggle with saying “no.” Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting others’ feelings. Some want to be liked or be seen as team players. Yet others believe they really can do it all. Whatever the reason, this inability to say “no” can have several personal consequences.
- Not being able to say “no” leads people into doing things they don’t respect themselves for doing. Saying “yes” becomes wrong when they want to say “no” and it is in their best interest to say “no,” but instead they resign and say, “OK, I’ll do it.”
- Not being able to say “no” distracts people from their priorities and tasks that they really want to get completed. They become so encumbered doing the things they don’t want to do that they have neither the time nor the energy for the things that are most important to them.
- By feeling like an overcommitted, selfless martyr and allowing other people to exploit them continually, people who struggle to say “no” may build up resentment. Often, after a long stretch of saying “yes” and doing things they don’t want to do, they may end up losing their temper and bring about an inappropriate emotional outburst.
Nice Ways to Say “No”
The key to saying “no” is to say it firmly, succinctly, and without an overlong explanation. Here are two examples.
- Imagine you’ve been working on the organizing committee for an employee recognition event. Even though you’ve put in more time than anyone else on the committee has, the committee’s chair comes to you with another request, “Mark, I’m really fortunate to have you on the organizing committee. Can I count on you to go collect the recognition plaques from the store?” You could say, “No, chief. I have already done more than my share. Perhaps you should give that job to someone who hasn’t done his/her share.”
- Sometimes, you don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. Try to defer your answer when faced with a request that you cannot accept immediately by saying, “Give me some time to think about it” or “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the requester doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he/she appreciates knowing you’ve seriously considered the request.
Easy and Effective Ways to Say “No”
Here are more simple and direct ways to say “no” for you to practice.
- “No. Let’s find another way to get it done.”
- “No, I can’t do it on such short notice. I have something else scheduled for that time.”
- “No, not now. I don’t feel like doing that today. I’d rather do something else.”
- “No, I don’t know this topic well enough to do a decent job.”
- “No, I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t fully commit to doing well.”
- “No, I’d be happy to help in some smaller capacity. Make me a member of the committee, not the chair.”
- “No, I have a personal policy about not working on Saturdays or not missing my evening workout.”
- “No, it’s impossible for me to do that. Please try someone else.”
- “No.” Sometimes the best way to say “no” is to simply and directly say “no.” Per the old adage, “Never apologize. Never explain.”
Idea for Impact: Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”
Have no regrets about having to say “no.” Don’t allow pangs of guilt to dictate your personal or professional life.
In an NPR This I Believe essay, Jessica Paris reflected, “sometimes saying ‘no’ is easier than saying ‘yes’ … when I need it, my strength to say ‘no’ is bolstered by knowing that every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else.” In other words, almost every misplaced “yes” is really a “no” to yourself. So, don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”