No: Two letters, one syllable, a clear meaning. It should be easy to say, but for many of us it’s not. Learning how to say no can be a real challenge, particularly for the people pleasers and high achievers amongst us.
It’s something I struggle with myself. Not because I’m passive or intimidated, but because I genuinely love helping other people and giving back to my community. ‘Making a difference’ is a core value of my business and while most of the time that’s great and rewarding, sometimes it brings me unstuck and I say yes to too much. While I am getting better at it, I’m still a work in progress.
Being able to say no is a crucial communication skill to develop; just as important as learning how to say yes to opportunities even when you’re afraid or doubt yourself.
It’s not just being able to say the word, it’s how you say it that’s important. You must be decisive.
When you say no with uncertainty or timidness, couched in phrases like, “I don’t really think I could”, “I’m pretty busy at the moment”, “could someone else help you?”, you’re effectively saying yes – and other people know it. They know you’ll be a pushover if they just apply the right amount of guilt and pressure.
When I first started my business, some 11 years ago, I helped people write job applications. It was a great revenue stream as I was getting established, but I no longer offer the service.
However, for about a year after deciding to move away from this work, I kept taking on job application clients. Not because I needed the income, but because I was crap at saying no.
I felt bad saying I couldn’t help, particularly if it was someone I knew, so instead of saying no I would ask questions like, “When’s it due? Do you have a base resume already? How many selection criteria are there?” and of course the minute I did this I was on the hook.
So how do you say no if you’ve always been a yes person? How can you politely and assertively push back, rather than get pushed over?
Here are five techniques to help:
1. Be a broken record
Rather than get caught off guard the next time someone asks you a question you find tricky, have a response ready to go.
Like a broken record that gets stuck repeating the same line over and over, you need to know and stick to your key message using consistent language.
This ‘broken record’ technique requires some initial planning to work out what your message is, and then a dose of courage to ensure you stick to your guns and say it without over-explaining, but when put into practice it is very effective.
Now, if someone asks me to help them with a job application, my answer is clear:
“Sorry, I don’t offer that service anymore.”
When they push (“But pleaaaaassseeee Leah, I really need you”), I repeat my position: “Unfortunately I don’t offer that service anymore.”
The person soon realises they’re not getting anywhere. I’m not wavering or stepping off my key message and my position is clear. They give up asking far earlier than if I’d answered non-committedly.
2. Offer a solution or alternative
This option is perfect for those of you, like me, who genuinely do want to help others, but still need to say no.
Offer a solution or alternative to the person’s problem that doesn’t involve you doing the work. Give them a recommendation or suggest where they might find the assistance elsewhere.
I often include a solution or alternative when saying no using the broken record technique: “Unfortunately, I don’t offer that service anymore but I can recommend someone else who does this work…”
You’ll feel better and the other person will appreciate your effort.
3. When you say yes, understand you’re already saying no
Time is a finite resource. Every time you say yes to something that takes up your time, you are already saying no to something or someone else. The trick is to increase your consciousness of this, so that every time you go to say yes to something, you first ask yourself ‘by saying yes, who or what am I saying no to?’
Often, you’ll find that by saying yes to a little favour for a colleague (which they should be doing themselves), you’re saying no to yourself and your ability to get your own work done. This can have a detrimental impact on your performance – your own work suffers because you’re too busy doing the work of others. You miss deadlines and the quality of your work drops.
In your personal life, it may be that by saying yes to an event you don’t really want to go to, you’re saying no to spending time with your family or friends. You run around pleasing other people, while those who mean the most to you suffer an absence of your time.
Put the question front and centre: If I say yes to this, what or who am I saying no to? It’s a game-changer.
4. Buy yourself some time. ‘Let me get back to you’ or ‘I need to check my availability’
If you still struggle to say no and are particularly prone to saying yes when under pressure in the moment only to kick yourself later, buy yourself some time. Put a pause between your reaction and your response.
Try saying something like, “let me check my calendar and get back to you”, then go away and think about whether you truly want to say yes to the request or not. With the space to think it through, you’re more likely to make a considered and rational decision.
Even if you do end up saying yes, this pause will allow you to be more assertive in suggesting a deadline or delivery timeframe, rather than giving the other person control by asking “when’s it due?”. You may instead respond with, “Yes, I can do that for you but not until the end of next week”.
5. Create a process for saying ‘no’
For those who still struggle to say no and need a fifth strategy for success, I recommend creating a simple decision-making process map or checklist. I’m not joking. In fact, I created one when my business took off and I went from chasing work to being overwhelmed with opportunity (a nice problem to have, but a problem all the same).
Rather than rely on the emotional part of my brain to make decisions, or pressure myself to weigh up options on the spot, I run all work requests through my checklist to guide whether I say yes or no. My process effectively makes the decision for me.
My process for saying yes or no to work:
- Can I do the work? (Do I have the skills or expertise?)
- Do I want to do the work? (Does it excite and engage me? Do I want to do this work with these people? Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.)
- Do I have the capacity to do the work? (Do I have the time? Look at my calendar and work out how/if I can make it fit.)
- Do I really have the time? (What am I saying no to if I say yes to this work?)
- Are they willing to pay my rate? (If not, does this work have the possibility to create future opportunities?)
- Are they willing to do the work that is required to ensure my training/mentoring has an impact and translates into action?
- Does this work align with my values, business plan and strategy?
- Will there be consequences if I do or don’t do the work and am I ok with those?
So, there you have it: five tips to help you say no. I hope you find them as useful as I do.
Leah Mether helps make the ‘people part’ of leadership and work-life easier. She is a communications specialist, speaker, trainer and author. To find out more about Leah’s work, visit leahmether.com.au.