It’s one of the shortest words in the English language, and possibly one of the most powerful. It’s also one of the hardest for many of us to say.
Why is that? Today let’s dig a little deeper behind this short word to understand why saying ‘no’ is so hard, why we might need more of it in our lives, and nine ways to make it easier to use it when we need to.
The Oldest, Shortest Words
Does this sound familiar? You are in the middle of something important when the email chimes: Marco wants you to join another committee, or Bob leans over the cubicle and starts talking about the game, or there’s a crisis over in marketing and Janelle thinks you are the only one who can help.
Our heart says ‘no,’ we have things to do right now. Our brain tells us we shouldn’t. Experience reminds us it’s not a good idea. The calendar is already full of other things we’ve already said ‘yes’ to (for other people).
And yet, before we even realize what’s happening, we feel ourselves forcing a smile, hear ourselves saying ‘yes,’ and see ourselves digging into our little bag of time, and handing a wad of it over to whoever happens to be demanding tribute.
Then they walk away, while we’re left mumbling under our breath as we start adjusting schedules, cutting back personal time, and sacrificing our “priorities” to making space for yet another new obligation.
It all happened faster than a pickpocket in Times Square – a little jostle in the crowd and suddenly our wallet is gone. I always thought of Pythagoras as a math guy, but he was right when he said:
Why do we allow ourselves to be shaken down on a regular basis? Why do we keep saying ‘yes?’
There are lots of reasons, but here are the ones that seem to come up the most:
To be liked. As social animals, we all like to feel accepted by whatever group of people matters to us. Doing things that make those people happy seems to be a quick way in. We say ‘yes,’ they smile, everybody feels good.
To not be disliked. The opposite of that, saying ‘no,’ can bring disappointment, displeasure, and a frown. Saying ‘no’ can come across as personal rejection, even if we don’t intend it that way. We worry about the social cost of a ‘no.’
To avoid conflict. Saying ‘no’ raises tension, makes people uncomfortable, and now we may have to defend our response. It seems easier to just say ‘yes’ than to argue about priorities, resources, and who is supposed to do what.
To feel important. To be asked to do something makes us feel needed. It’s what Sarah Newman at PsychCentral calls Savior Behavior – we are the ones they come to when there’s a fire to put out. It can feel good to be that person.
To reciprocate. There’s a social balance of trade: we do things for people, and in theory they’ll do things for us later on down the line. Or perhaps we already “owe them one.” Most of us try to keep that balance roughly even.
To keep the dialogue going. We may fear that one ‘no’ too many and we risk damaging our relationship with that person. We say ‘yes’ because we want to stay connected.
There are lots of powerful reasons our natural impulse is to nod in a north-south direction, but before we give in to that inclination, it’s worth a look at the reasons an east-west head shake may be a better idea.
Why is Saying No Important?
Opportunity cost. Time is limited, and there are only so many resources. When we say ‘yes’ we commit those resources, and in the process, we sacrifice the opportunity to use them for some other purpose.
In that sense, every ‘yes’ to one thing is a ‘no’ to everything else we could have done. Saying ‘yes’ takes options off the table and limits our freedom.
Direction. Another reason has to do with where we’re headed. If we are always working on other people’s priorities, there is no time to work on our own, and we’ll have a tough time getting to the places we are trying to go.
As Dan Rockwell at Leadership Freak points out so succinctly:
Control. Further, we can look at the ability to say ‘no’ as an indicator of the health of our relationships. Judith Sills, Ph.D. in Psychology Today tells us that if we feel we cannot say ‘no,’ at least to some things, some of the time, then we are not being loved—we are being controlled. In that case, it may be time to look a little deeper at the nature of the relationship itself.
The math is different. In leadership positions the social calculus changes. As leaders, it’s no longer about what we as individuals owe to each of the other individuals in the group, but about doing what is best for the team and its mission collectively. That’s one of the things that makes it so hard to lead a team of our former peers.
So we’re strongly tempted to say ‘yes,’ even as we understand that we should say no; what if we split the difference and say nothing?
What if We Say Nothing?
What if we just ignore the request? Maybe if we don’t make eye contact with it, it will go away. This is what Hank Davis, writing for Psychology Today, calls the the passive no.
In choosing not to respond to a request at all, we may avoid conflict in the near-term, but in its place, our non-answer is sowing longer-lasting confusion and uncertainty. Is it happening or isn’t it? Who’s in charge? What’s the priority? Some may take silence as consent and begin to act, or they may assume that we are taking action and fail to act themselves. Confusion reigns.
No, if we are to lead, we are supposed to be bringing order out of chaos, not creating more of it by taking the easy way out. We owe our teammates a clear yes or no, and very often it will involve saying ‘no,’ which can be hard.
Here are nine ways that make it a little easier to say ‘no.’
How to Say ‘No’
1. Make it “not now.” This is a form of ‘no’ that leaves the door open to the future. It’s easier to say since it is not an outright rejection, just keep in mind it’s really a qualified ‘yes’ since we’re saying we are willing if the conditions were different. Only use this if you really would be willing to do it at some future time.
“No, now is not a good time with everything else on my plate, but next week might be possible.”
2. Volunteer Someone Else. Maybe the task is a worthy one; that still doesn’t mean we have to do it. Perhaps there is someone else with more time, greater skill, or who could use the task as a developmental opportunity. Volunteering someone else is a ‘no’ with a deflection, we’re helping them see other options without accepting the task ourselves.
“No, I can’t do that right now, but you know Karl is good at this sort of thing and may be able to help. Maybe ask him.”
3. Have a plan. As Eric Barker points out in Barking up the Wrong Tree, many people use the calendar to plan interruptions to the day – the dentist appointment, getting the kids to soccer practice, attending the staff meeting. What can be better is to use the calendar to plan things that shouldn’t be interrupted. When we have already blocked off our our priority time on the calendar, it’s easier to say ‘no’ to the things that would disrupt it.
“No, that time is already dedicated to something else that has to be done.”
4. Make it “I don’t.“ James Clear says that how we phrase our response can make it easier to say ‘no,’ and harder for others to argue. If we say, “I can’t” it implies an external restriction imposed on us, and the asker can open up a debate about it, starting with, “why not?”
If we use the more powerful, “I don’t,” it is a strong signal of personal agency and identity – it’s our choice and it’s about who we are. People who think in terms of “I can’t eat that piece of chocolate” were much more likely to give in than those who said, “I don’t eat chocolate.“
“No, that would conflict with my Tuesday run, and I don’t miss workouts.”
5. Commitment to others. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the pressures women sometimes feel to be agreeable in the work place. One way she suggests to combat this is to make it about others – studies showed that in negotiations, women struggled when it was about themselves, but were extremely effective when advocating on behalf of others.
“No, I have already committed that time to help the marketing team and I can’t let them down.”
6. Buy time. Often, under the pressures of time and the presence of the person making the ask, we lose perspective and are tempted to cave in immediately. Take the pressure off by bargaining for a little time. Once we’ve had a clear moment to think, we can come to a rational decision. Just don’t leave them hanging; the longer we wait, the more they will think we might do it and the harder it becomes to say ‘no.’
“I can’t give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right now; let me think about it and I’ll get back to you tomorrow by lunch.”
7. Weigh the opportunity cost. Pause a moment and consider the opportunity cost. Is the three hours it will take to do their project worth taking away from getting our own project completed? Expressing the options in these terms takes us personally out of the calculation. It is easier to say ‘no’ when we can frame the options this way.
“No, Jim, I can’t cover the meeting. My Tuesday is dedicated to getting the Dinglemeyer project back on track, and that’s one of our biggest clients.”
8. Make a pre-emptive strike. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown needed to protect his book-writing time; he used technology to help him do it. He wrote an “out of office” automatic response email with the Subject Line: “In Monk Mode.” Anyone emailing him with a request automatically received a polite message apologizing and saying that unfortunately he would not be able to respond. McKeown reported that “people seemed to adapt to my…non-responsiveness just fine.”
“I’m sorry, but I am 100% committed to getting the Dinglemeyer project done by Friday and am not available for other tasks for the moment. Thanks for your understanding.”
9. Ask: What do we deprioritize? As career advisors at Ladders remind us, saying no can be especially hard if the request comes from someone higher in our food chain. A way to address this is to simply ask them where their request should fall in relation to everything else that is going on.
In this case, since it’s the boss, we can even start with a ‘yes’ but leave it clear that there is also a ‘no’ involved in the answer.
“I can do that if you like, but that means I won’t have the Dinglemeyer project done by Friday. Which would you prefer for me to focus on?”
Saying No – The Takeaway
There are lots of ways to get that ‘no’ out there and make it stick, but maybe this visual can serve as one more tool to help us keep an eye on our priorities.
Think of saying ‘no’ as the red light on a traffic signal at a busy intersection. In order for traffic to flow on the main road, that traffic light spends a lot of time signaling ‘no’ to all the cross-roads.
We don’t get mad at the traffic light, it’s just doing its job, helping others move safely and efficiently along their way. We may not like having to wait at a red light, but we’re also glad for the clarity – we understand.
With limited time and resources, we can’t do everything we or others may want us to do; the traffic light can’t be green for everybody. There have to be priorities.
What we owe to others, and to ourselves, is a clear, firm and respectful ‘no’ much of the time, so that when it’s time to say ‘yes’ to something, we can go all-in.
Or, as I like to respond when my wife wants to know if I can do her a favor:
“For you, honey, the answer is ‘yes;’ form your question accordingly….”