Previously published on Forbes
Aiden looked at her watch. It was 5:30 pm. She should be wrapping up and heading home. But her desk and her mind were still full of things to finish. It was “crunch time” at work, or so her boss said. She felt like she and her team had been crunching for a while now. Just then, her manager walked into her office. He had an exciting new opportunity for Aiden. He wanted her to take on a new project.
For a moment, Aiden was excited about this big idea. She almost said, “Yes!” But she stopped herself. She thanked her boss and said that she would like the weekend to consider the ask. She was proud of herself. How many times had she caved in and said “yes” when “no” was the better response? Maybe this time she could negotiate a path forward that didn’t have her working more hours every week.
Sometimes, we say yes to things without being clear about what we are agreeing to or what it will really take. It’s important to pause to consider what the ask involves or to gain clarity about the impact on you. Being thoughtful and asking for clarity is essential. It allows you to fulfill what you’ve agreed to.
Too many "yeses" can lead to overwhelm, so if you want to be seen as a clear and decisive leader, don’t be loose about saying yes.Instead, build the muscle of making promises you know you can deliver on—and recognize that “no” can also be acceptable. Your integrity depends on your ability to follow through on what you have agreed to do.
Many of us are great at saying yes to anything because we welcome a new challenge. We love fresh starts and new beginnings. You may feel honored that your boss asked you to take on a new project. You like being seen as competent and capable. However, every yes means saying no to something else. Odds are, before your boss approached you with this new project, you weren’t sitting around twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to do. You already had a full plate. Adding something to it will cause your plate to overflow.How Do You Know What Should Be a “No”?
So, how do you identify what to say no to? Look for things in your workday that are no longer working for you: meetings where you are bored and distracted, tasks that you know you shouldn’t be doing yourself but rather should delegate to someone else.
Let me share a personal example. I have been moving steadily in the direction of writing, publishing and public speaking. I have said yes to more of all of this. But to be able to write and publish more, I need more time and space in my days and weeks—what we might call more “capacity.” I don’t have the kind of mind that can sit down and write creatively on demand. And forcing myself doesn’t seem to do anything but cause me to want to eat chocolate and pour another iced coffee.
I came to realize that there are things I need to say no to, and, specifically, I needed to reduce my client work.
I needed to say no to some of my clients about continuing to provide coaching to them, so I made a list of all of my clients. I was determined to get from 28 clients to 6. This is how much capacity I wanted back—almost ¾ of my time. Now, you may not need such an aggressive take-back of your time. You might want to reclaim 10% of your time for more creative or strategic work. You may need to decline a meeting or two. I chose to let 22 people know that I was no longer going to work with them. It was a brave and scary thing to do.
I also had to make room for them to have whatever emotional reaction they might have. Some were totally understanding and grateful for the work we had done together. Others were upset and disappointed. I had to coach myself to remain calm and not undo my “no” just to make that person happy again. I had to remember the larger ideal I was working towards.
In fact, the biggest challenge to saying no is being willing to be with someone who is disappointed about it. I don’t know about you, but I really try to avoid disappointing people! Aversion to disappointment is most likely what causes people to overcommit and say yes too often. Neuroscience supports our hunch that No is going to register far more harshly than we may have intended. The human brain is hardwired to respond to No more quickly, more intensely and more persistently than to a positive signal. No is stronger than Yes.
This is always the challenge when we assert what we want and need. It might, and often does, conflict with someone else’s wants and needs. You have to find the compromise between conflicting needs. At other times, you have to stand for what works and what doesn’t work for you without caving in.
Be Open to Revoking a Yes
Keep in mind, you can always revoke a yes. I was working with a client yesterday who had said yes last week to a request for a proposal. But the more she considered this ask, the more she decided that she really didn’t have the time and energy for it. Her yes needed to be a no. I challenged her to revoke her promise to get the proposal done by Friday—to politely change her mind.
She was so relieved. She said she hadn’t considered that she could undo a “yes.” She was prepared to follow through no matter the cost to her personally. “No” pays off in your personal life as well as your professional life. It's wonderful to feel in charge of yourself, to be a clear boundary setter. You will naturally gain energy and self-confidence.
Three Steps for Saying No
- Create a list of everything you are doing right now that you would like to say no to.
- Tell the truth: Telling the truth is saying, “This is the reality – I’m sorry but I just can’t take that on, even though I don’t want to let you down.”
- Identify some genuine options: You can revoke the thing you said “yes” to, or you can renegotiate the terms of when it will be completed, or you could consider how you might delegate the task or project to someone else. In other words, “No, I can’t do this, but….”