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How to Say No – and Why You Should!

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“I think the main thing that is keeping me playing the ‘yes-man’ role is that I want to be able to please everyone and I want people to like me. I like feeling needed and if someone needs my help I almost always give it because I have a very hard time saying ‘no’ to people.”

Does this sound at all like you? These words were spoken by a female mentee of mine, who was in college at the time, but I know she’s not alone. We have heard so many women at Professionelle seminars and workshops talk about how hard it is to say ‘no’ and how they wish they could say it more often in the workplace (and beyond) and with less guilt. These women range from those at the start of their careers, to those well on their way, so this is a truly pervasive issue.

Gender Stereotypes

Why is it so pervasive? Psychological research reveals that women are raised to be supportive nurturers and people-pleasers while men are expected to be action-oriented and independent. We all, men and women, carry these almost subconscious associations around in our heads. They fuel our expectations of others and ourselves – women ought to help, for example – as well as driving some of our biases. (Don’t believe you have any biases around men’s and women’s roles? Take one of Harvard University’s Implicit Association tests here:

If you are one of the many people who find it hard to say ‘no’, take heart from knowing there are ways to say it that are gracious and effective and don’t even require you to utter that scary two letter word!

How Does it Feel?

Here’s an opening thought: how do you feel when someone says ‘no’ to you? Do you immediately think they are rude, unfriendly and unreasonable? Do you feel rejected? Next time someone turns you down, do two things:

  1. ask yourself how you feel. Be mindful of your emotion and thoughts;
  2. ask yourself how that person conveyed the ‘no’.

You might be surprised to notice how readily you accept their negative answer. You might also uncover some extra tips and tactics to add to the ones below.

6 Ways to say ‘No’

1. Clarify priorities

This tactic is ideal when it’s your boss loading on extra work or you’re asked to help with the school fair. It’s not a ‘no’, it’s a way to order the important tasks and be sure you can deliver on existing expectations to a high standard. People, bosses included, sometimes forget how much they have already asked you to do… it doesn’t hurt to express pleasure and interest at being offered the new opportunity, if you can do so authentically. It might turn out that the new assignment is one you would love to work on, and that the more tedious tasks you have can actually be allowed to wait.

2. Offer alternatives

Whether through your own lack of skill or time, there will be occasions when you feel you are not the right person for the job as it has been presented to you. If trying alternatives like a delayed start or a restricted scope won’t suit, then consider offering a recommendation of a better-equipped person to pass them on to. That softens the ‘no’ and makes you look helpful, too.

This is a tactic that can work with anything from mismatched work assignments to being expected, in some organisations, to take the minutes because you’re a woman and “so good with details, dear”. Next time something like that happens, try saying,
“Thank you for the compliment but I’d like to be able to participate more actively in the discussion this time. Tim, perhaps you could do the honours today?”

3. “I’ll get back to you.”

This is a good tactic for the people-pleasers out there. Give the person who’s asking for something a firm time for your response and, again, you can sound positive and interested. For example:

Thank you for thinking of me for this. It does sound interesting. Could you give me a day to think about my schedule? Until I take a careful look at my commitments, I won’t know if I can give this the time and attention it would need.

You’re giving yourself some time to think and, if it’s not right, to formulate a response. If it is something you’re really interested in, you’re also giving yourself some time to think of alternatives that might work for both parties.

Note: sounding appreciative of the opportunity is simply being polite and acknowledging the other person’s approach. It isn’t a slippery slope to ‘yes’…

4. Practice!

Choose some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying no. I have strengthened my muscles for the hardest ‘no’, namely delivering an unequivocal, absolute refusal while still wanting to sound reasonable and polite. My tool of choice has been that bane of dinner times everywhere: the fundraiser phone call.

This year you can’t count on my support, I’m afraid. I’ve reviewed the charities I want to donate to and [insert name] is no longer one of them. Good luck with your fundraising.

5. Plan ahead

Can you think of repeated, tedious requests for help that come your way? If they are draining you and feeling unfair, you can take pre-emptive action by saying ‘no’ ahead of time. For example, does the receptionist always ask you, the lone woman on the floor, to pick up external phone calls when she goes to lunch, or has to leave early? There’s a limit to everything, including woman-to-woman support. Try saying that you are going to be under a lot of pressure to deliver in the next week/month and you’re finding the phone calls wreak havoc with your concentration. You won’t be able to take them till things calm down. Maybe she could ask someone else on the floor?

6. Know Your No

Before you can say ‘no’ with confidence, you have to be clear that you want to say ‘no’! What do you value, and want to protect? Saying ‘no’ to what you don’t want is the way to open your time and energy to things you want to say ‘yes’ to. This often means some reflection, strategic thinking and even soul searching. It’s important. You should do it. But it’s last on the list because it takes the longest!

3 Reasons you should say ‘no’ more often

1. To grow respect

When you say no, you put limits in place and set boundaries. In effect you are showing respect for yourself, in terms of safeguarding what matters to you (your values, for example) and for the other person, in terms of not overpromising and under-delivering.

I have been amazed at how a clear boundary calls forth respect from others. Years ago, a consultant refused to work on a casino project because of a values-based issue with gambling. I watched at a work assignment meeting how, far from being career-limiting, that position visibly increased her standing in the partners’ eyes.

2. To protect your time and energy

Performing on the job is the bedrock of career advancement. Everyone who is promotable performs but great performance takes time and energy. If your time and energy are being drained by other people’s priorities and by your reputation for saying ‘yes’, how can you do your best?

3. To build your professional profile

You don’t just need to perform in order to advance. You also have to build a profile – to become known for certain valuable attributes, and ultimately to become known through the networks you build and maintain. That takes time, and for female professionals time is a precious commodity, becoming more so in the years when family and career intersect.

In environments that are mainly male, it is not uncommon for women to invest their time and energy in the unglamorous jobs that need doing but that earn few thanks. This is in line with the societal expectations mentioned above that women are implicitly expected, by men and women alike, to be supportive of others’ needs ahead of their own.

Last word

I’ll leave the last word on the importance to women’s careers of being able to say ‘no’ to an excellent book we’ve reviewed on our site, called ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom’:

Men do things that are high profile, rather than things that need doing. Women pick up so many low-level tasks they don’t have time for higher level tasks.

Don’t let that be you! Start flexing your ‘no’ muscles!

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