Making Way for Yes by Learning to Say No

What do you think of when you hear the word “no”?

Let’s go back in time for a second: you’re 6 years old and you hear the all too familiar tinkling music coming from the road outside – it’s him… it’s the ice cream man! You race to your Mum to beg her for a ’99p twist’ and what does she say? “No.” Cue tantrum.

We’re sorry if that analogy has left you mourning the chilling memory of ice creams that could have been (do you see what we did there?). The point is that we, from a young age, learn to associate the word “no” with negativity, rejection and denial. These connotations therefore make it hard for some of us to say it, especially at work.

But why is this? There are many reasons why a person may not say no, even when they want to. Some people are pathological people pleasers; they will do anything to make others happy, or be liked, even if it’s to their detriment. Fear of rejection is also a common reason; most people want to be accepted by their friends, family or peers and think that saying “no” to them may harm their personal or professional relationships. Others simply fear the consequences of saying “no”, they feel that they will miss out on something or regret doing so.

However, as we get older and wiser we can start to see the benefits of  ‘no’. ‘No’ can protect us from the consequences of ‘yes’; constantly agreeing to things when you shouldn’t can really drag you down. Try not to see saying no as closing the door on an opportunity, it simply makes way for the right ones. If you turn a task down, that should leave you with the energy, time and motivation to generate better results with the tasks you are already working on.

“Focusing is about saying no” – Steve Jobs, 1997

At work, if your in-tray is fit to burst, your phone is ringing off the hook and your Manager asks you to take on a new project, you say yes. Despite how organised, enthusiastic and committed you may be, taking on too much, could cause some things to fall by the wayside. Even if you’re normally ‘on the ball’, you may have to compromise the quality of your work. You know your limits and capabilities so trust your gut if you feel like a sincere but firm ‘no’ is in order. Many of us strive to be the best we can be at work, contrary to what you may believe, saying ‘yes’ too often may in fact hinder this.

It would be understandable to be concerned about turning things down having a negative impact on your work life. However, a good Manager and understanding colleagues will acknowledge that you can’t do everything – you’re only human! So, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. If we go back to the above scenario, but you simply cannot take on any further work – “No, can’t you see how busy I am?! Ask someone else!” is a response that is likely to ruffle feathers.

The best way is to be tactful and open; say that you would love to help, but politely tell your Manager that you have a lot to do at present and ask if there is something else they would be happy for you to put to one side for now to allow you to take on this new task. This way you can negotiate and your Manager can see what work you currently have; they can help you prioritise if necessary. They may realise that you are already hard at work on important tasks, and acknowledge that it would be counter-productive to add to your ‘to-do list’. Either way, you won’t find yourself under any additional pressure, and you have said ‘no’ in the best and most professional way possible. Prioritising what’s important at work will allow you to continue being the great employee and asset you are! If someone has considered you in particular for an opportunity you have turned down, remember to thank them for thinking of you, as they clearly trust in your abilities!

The more you start to say no, the more comfortable you will get in doing so. WARNING: don’t fall into the trap of saying no every time you simply don’t want to do something. It’s an obligation of adult life, we will always have to do things we don’t want to, but there may be benefits in the long-run. It’s therefore important to make sure that you weigh up the pros and cons of saying yes or no. If you have time to do something, without sacrificing or missing out on something else that will really benefit you, then it might be best to do it.

Let’s say that Josh from the Sales Team needs help with a project he’s working on; you may not particularly want to, but you’ve finished your important tasks for the day and you know it won’t take too long. The cons are that you will have a little more work to do than you anticipated. The pros are that you will build a good relationship with this colleague (and they’re more likely to help you out in the future) and you might learn something and it shows you in a good light to your superiors. The benefits will make you glad you said yes. Whereas, you may feel a little differently if you say yes to dog-sitting your friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s Labradoodle for the week whilst your best mates enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime holiday in Mexico.

Don’t feel pressured if someone won’t take no for an answer, stick to your guns; if they’re being pushy, be just as pushy back. As long as you are polite and keep things light-hearted, this shouldn’t cause a confrontation. In fact, if you stand your ground, it’s likely that you’ll earn a lot of respect for doing so. Also, remember that this is your time and your life; you’re not obliged to provide an in-depth reason for your decision. We’re all guilty of conjuring an elaborate white lie when we want to get out of something (“I need to take my Great Aunty Mabel to the elbow doctor”), but there really is no need; this only adds pressure and stress, leaves you open to consternation and your lie may collapse under scrutiny. A simple “No, I’m afraid I can’t/don’t have time” should suffice and if you want to give a genuine reason, then keep it short and to the point.

Overall, you can make positive changes to your life by remembering that saying yes or no is your choice. Don’t fall victim to the burden of obligation; when you’re presented with an opportunity it’s in your power, no one else’s!

The decisions that you make need to be what’s best for you, so it’s time to learn to respect your own time, wants and needs by learning to say no.

So… What do you say? Yes or no?

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