Communication hacks series: how to say no and why you need to do it
Imagine you’re working on a major project. It’s already past 6pm and your family are expecting you for dinner, but the deadline is tomorrow and you know you have a full day of meetings ahead. Just as she’s leaving, your boss pops her head in and asks if you’d take a look at something urgently and get it on her desk first thing in the morning.
What do you want to do, and what do you actually do?
- Agree, text your family and settle in for a late night at the office.
- Try to get out of it, but agree when she insists.
- Explain to your boss that you’d love to help, but you’re about to leave for dinner and you have an incredibly busy day tomorrow.
Most of us want to choose option ‘c’, but it’s a rare, brave soul that actually does! Most people reluctantly end up choosing ‘a’ or ‘b’, despite knowing they’re taking on too much and missing out on the things that matter to them.
Why do we have such trouble saying no? How does it affect us? More importantly, how can we stop?
Why we don’t say no
We’re pretty well-trained to defer to authority figures. If the person asking is a senior figure, you may feel like you’re obliged to do whatever they ask. If you don’t, you might worry that you’re giving a negative impression, sabotaging your chances for promotion, or even jeopardising your career.
It’s true – we want to be liked, and in professional settings your success might depend on it. We often worry about saying no because the other person may view us as selfish or unhelpful, in which case our relationships and reputation may suffer.
Somebody is genuinely in need of your help. You don’t want to let them down and the idea of disappointing someone makes your stomach churn. So, you’d rather say ‘yes’ and suffer guilt than say no.
These are some of reasons you might feel guilty for saying no, even at your own expense.
Why we should say no
Taking on too much is the quickest way to burn yourself out. You can only do so much, and you need to take time to rest and recharge. If you’re regularly taking on more than you can handle and working late every day, spending time with people that drain your energy or attending events that you didn’t want to attend, you’ll eventually burnout or grow resentful towards people.
Project the right image
‘No’ is a power word and it sends an important message.
You’re telling yourself and others that your work, your skills and your time are valuable. Indiscriminately saying yes, on the other hand, tells people that you have nothing better to do and that their time is more important than yours.
Maintain your performance
It’s tempting to say yes because you want to look good, but take on too much and the quality of your work will start to decline, along with your reputation. It’s better to do a few things well than to do many things to a mediocre standard.
Stop missing out
Your time is a finite resource. Every time you say yes to something, you say no to something else – family time, personal time, career opportunities. By learning to say no to the things that aren’t important to you, you’re opening up space for the things that are.
Don’t be taken advantage of
It’s good to be a team player, but being the ‘yes person’ sets you up to be taken advantage of. If people know you never say no, you risk becoming the go-to person for the jobs they don’t want to do themselves.
How you can get better at saying no
Know when to say no
Sometimes, we’re just not sure if saying no is appropriate. If somebody is passing their responsibilities on to you, or helping them would interfere your own responsibilities, then you have a right to say no. Likewise if you feel that they’re taking advantage of you or taking your help for granted.
If you’re stressed, overwhelmed or sick, or even if you’re simply tired and you feel you need some time for yourself, you should absolutely say no. Whatever the request, you should never feel guilty for prioritising your health and wellbeing.
Know what’s stopping you
Understand why you’re reluctant to say no. Are you scared of disapproval or repercussions? Are your fears realistic? If so, is there a manager or supervisor that you can share your concerns with?
What have you got to lose?
Lay out the benefits of saying yes and compare it to the cost. Is it worth putting off a family dinner for the opportunity to work on a project that might change your career? Maybe. Is it worth it just to gain a few brownie points with a colleague? Not so much.
Know your values
Take some time to write down your career values, goals and dreams, and use them as a benchmark. Does the request align with your values? Does it move you closer to your goals? Will it help you to achieve your dreams? If not, then make it a personal rule to say no!
Saying no is a skill that takes practice.
If you find it intimidating to start with, begin by saying no to smaller requests and build up your confidence from there.
Stick to your guns
Once you’ve set a boundary, it’s important to stick to it. Debating or justifying tells the person they can negotiate their own way. Giving in tells the person that they just have to be persistent. Simply re-state what you’ve said and don’t offer any more explanation than necessary.
Rebrand your decline
If a straight ‘no’ feels too harsh or inappropriate, then try to soften the blow by reframing your answer. You can defer the person with a ‘not now but check back later’, or you can refer them to somebody you think might be able to help. You can also share the load by delegating the task or making it a group project.
If all else fails, a technique called relational accounting may help. An example would be: “I’m sorry, I’d love to help, but I’ve promised Sarah I’d look over her accounts. If I take on this project then I’d have to let her down.”
By outlining a negative effect for a third person, you’re appealing to the requester’s own need to preserve relationships. After all, they don’t want to be the person responsible for Sarah’s accounts being late, especially if she’s higher up than they are.
Ready to say YES to the things that matter to you?
Janine Marin is a professional communications mentor, specialising in helping professionals like you to respectfully and confidently assert your boundaries in the workplace. Visit Janine’s mentoring page for more information, or contact Janine today for a discussion.