Nine ways to say no

Filed under: Time |

Irene (not her real name) is a great colleague.

She pitches in when the workload gets heavy, covers for people when they’re sick and stays late when needed, which is often. She’s also a leader, serving on boards and raising money at charity auctions. She tries to be home for her kids at dinner time, but often works into the night after they’ve gone to sleep. If you catch her in a moment of honesty, you’ll find out that she doesn’t feel so great. In fact, she’s exhausted.

Irene can’t say no. And because she can’t say no, she’s spending her very limited time and already taxed energy on other people’s priorities, while her own priorities fall to the wayside. I have experienced the same thing myself. So, over time, I experimented with a number of ways to strengthen my no.

Here are nine practices I shared with Irene to help her say a strategic no in order to create space in her life for a more intentional yes:

KNOW YOUR NO. Identify what’s important to you and acknowledge what’s not. If you don’t know where you want to spend your time, you won’t know where you don’t want to spend your time. BE APPRECIATIVE. It’s almost never an insult when people make requests of you. They’re asking for your help because they trust you and they believe in your capabilities to help. So thank them for thinking of you or making the request/invitation.

SAY NO TO THE REQUEST, NOT THE PERSON. You’re not rejecting the person, just declining his invitation. So make that clear.

EXPLAIN WHY. The particulars of your reason for saying no make very little difference. But having a reason does. Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t feel like what they’re asking you to do plays to your strengths. Be honest about why you’re saying no.

BE AS RESOLUTE AS THEY ARE PUSHY. Some people don’t give up easily. That’s their prerogative. But without violating any of the rules above, give yourself permission to be just as pushy as they are.

PRACTICE. Choose some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying no. Say no when a waiter offers you dessert. Say no when someone tries to sell you something on the street.

ESTABLISH A PRE-EMPTIVE NO. We all have certain people in our lives who tend to make repeated, sometimes burdensome requests of us. In those cases, it’s better to say no before the request even comes in. Let that person know that you’re hyper-focused on a couple of things in your life and trying to reduce your obligations in all other areas. If it’s your boss who tends to make the requests, agree upfront with her about where you should be spending your time. Then, when the requests come in, you can refer to your earlier conversation.

BE PREPARED TO MISS OUT. Some of us have a hard time saying no because we hate to miss an opportunity. And saying no always leads to a missed opportunity. But it’s not just a missed opportunity; it’s a tradeoff. Remind yourself that when you’re saying no to the request, you are simultaneously saying yes to something you value more than the request. Both are opportunities. You’re just choosing one over the other.

GATHER YOUR COURAGE. If you’re someone who is used to saying yes, it will take courage to say no, especially if the person asking doesn’t give up easily. You may feel like a bad friend. You might feel like you’re letting someone down or not living up to expectations. Maybe you’ll imagine that you’ll be seen or talked about in a negative light. Those things might be the cost of reclaiming your life. You’ll need courage to put up with them.

(Peter Bregman is a strategic adviser to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.” ) 

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