The Art of Saying No (How, When, and Why to Do It)

coaching mindset Jan 20, 2020

Recently, someone asked me about how and when to say no. I’m glad they did, because it's such an important skill, and because it's one I've struggled with.

Okay, that's an understatement. Sometimes it feels like my entire life is about not saying no enough. Which is why I know all about it!

Let's talk about why it's crucial, and some ways to go about saying no – especially when it's hard.

First, it helps to understand why it's such a hard thing to do. There are a few reasons:

  • We like being helpful. Many people – especially women, and those who help people for a living (coaches, teachers, therapists) – have a hard time saying "no" because it's in their nature to help people. That's me – I love helping people, so when someone asks me for something, my first inclination is to jump on it. The problem is, I tend to overcommit to the point that I'm not able to follow through, which can disappoint people more than if I just said no up front.
  • We want to be liked. It also comes down to how we want to be perceived: as likable, nice, unselfish, a good friend, a good employee. We think that saying "no" comes off as selfish or rude.
  • We think they can do everything. This one's also me. I'm just not realistic about my time. And I'll do any and anything to make something work, because I come from the mindset of "I can do it all, even if it kills me." Generally, that works for a while, and then I'll have a meltdown, or I'll get sick. (That's my body telling me to tone things down a bit…the body really does know what's right for us!)
  • Good old FOMO (fear of missing out). That sounds fun and exciting! What if I miss out on a great opportunity? Isn't it better to say yes and try it, even if it's not in line with my business goals?...The fact is, sometimes it's good to follow those feelings and say yes to something new. But if you're the type to overextend yourself, it's especially important to check your motives and make sure that if you're saying yes, it's for the right reasons.

Let's look at some ways you can do that.

  1. Ask yourself: Is this in line with my mission? Years ago, I worked with a coach who had a mission statement for the big areas of his life: family, health, and business. Anything that came into his vortex, any invitation, any question, he measured against those missions. Does it fulfill the greater mission of my life (or health, family, or business)? And that would determine whether he said yes or no.

This is a great way to measure whether something aligns with your values. Is it really fulfilling the mission of your life? If not, then chances are it should be a no.

  1. Ask yourself why you want to say yes. Is it simply because you feel guilty? If so, perhaps the intention isn't in line with who you truly are. Agreeing to things purely because you "should," or you feel bad, or because someone is pressuring you – those are all signs that you probably want to say no.

Or is it because it's easier to say yes? Maybe you just don't want to deal with the fallout of saying no – which is often more imagined than real! We tend to create these stories in our minds of what will happen if we say no – so and so will hate me; they won't ask me again; I'll miss out on a great opportunity – when really it's not a big deal.

  1. Give yourself a minute to decide. Especially if you're a big yes-person, then your first instinct might be to agree. But if you give yourself time before you respond, you can make a more mindful decision. A wise person once said, "Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Once you've decided that no is the right answer, here are three ways to say it (and mean it):

  1. Be straightforward. As the saying goes, "'No' is a complete sentence." You don't need to overexplain. "This doesn't work for my schedule." Or, "This sounds like a great opportunity. I'm just not able to do it." You don't have come up with some long, complicated story. You don't need to talk until the other person tells you it's okay. YOU get to decide that it's okay.
  2. Be honest. Don't lie. I know, it's tempting, because then you get to maintain the image of "I would, but…" You still get to look like the nice guy or gal. But that starts to wear your feelings about yourself. Lying doesn't come from a place of integrity and strength. Trust me, you'll feel better when you stand up for yourself and learn to say no with honesty.
  3. Don't delay. Once you know you're going to say no, do it right away. The more you overthink it, the more you imagine the worst case scenario, the worse it's gonna get. And as Dale Carnegie famously said, 85% of what we worry about never happens, so the chances are you're creating a mountain out of a molehill. Keep it small, keep it tight, and let it go.

So let's turn to you. How difficult is it for you to say no? Are there certain times or settings (work, home, social life) or around certain people that it's harder?

What is it about saying no that makes you uncomfortable?

Remember that you can say no with kindness and conviction. It doesn't make you rude or selfish. Most people respect those who can say no when they mean – because it also means their yes means yes.

If you're wondering whether you're saying no enough, look back at your schedule over the last week, and look at what you said yes to. Was it something you're glad you did? Or should you have said no?

Notice those times. Don't beat yourself up for the times you didn't say no. Just be aware of it, and next time, give yourself some space, assess your true feelings, and say what you need to say.

Go out, stand in your own integrity, and shine.

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