Have you ever said “yes” to a request that you really wanted to say “no” to? If so, you are not alone. One of the biggest challenges I see many friends and clients face is saying “no” to things they really don’t want to do. As a result, they often take on too much and feel stressed and frustrated.
This is something I have struggled with myself. Earlier in my career, I thought that saying “no” at work was not even an option. Needless to say, I was leading a very unbalanced life.
Everyone faces the problem of encountering something unwanted. It might be a demand or request that is unwelcome, a behavior that is inappropriate, or a situation that is not working or doesn’t seem fair.
Usually, we react in one of the following ways:
- We accommodate by saying “yes” when we really want to say “no”, because we feel guilty for saying “no.” As a result, we sacrifice our own needs.
- We attack by saying “no” poorly, because we feel angry. This damages our relationship with the other person.
- We avoid the situation by not saying anything at all, out of fear. We hope the problem will just go away, but it usually doesn’t and may escalate instead.
I used to think that the real problem was the other person who was coming up with the unwanted request. Because I thought I “had to” say yes, I felt powerless, not respected, and taken advantage of. But over the years I have come to realize that I was the one who was not giving myself any power, not respecting myself and allowing others to take advantage of me.
I did not treat my needs and wants as important and as a result, I did not stand up for them and did not set any clear limits and boundaries.
So how can we take care of our needs and wants and say “No” in a positive way? Former McKinsey partner Caroline Webb has a great system that was originally articulated by William Ury, the co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation (See: A former McKinsey partner shares the paradoxical strategy that can make you less stressed and more successful) Here is a slightly adapted version, combining both approaches:
Let’s say your boss asks you to work on the weekend to complete an important project. You have planned a gathering with friends that you have been looking forward to. Your promotion review is coming up very soon. How can you say “no”?
- Warmly Acknowledge the Request
First, acknowledge and show appreciation for the person’s request. It’s easy to forget to do this when you are reacting.
E.g. John, I am looking forward to bringing our project to a successful close.
- Give Yourself Time To Think
You don’t want to respond when you are feeling angry, guilt, or afraid. So make sure you give yourself time to think before your reply. If someone puts you on the spot, you can say something like:
“Let me think about it and get back to you in our next meeting.”
“I am sorry, but this is not a good time to talk about this. Let’s talk this afternoon.”
“I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think.”
“Would you excuse me? I need a coffee refill.”
If you are feeling emotional or upset, go for a walk or get some exercise, so you can think more calmly.
- Figure out what is important to you
Why do you want to say “no”? What is true and right to you? What are your values? What are your priorities?
You might have decided that family and friends are your number one priority in your life. Keeping your commitments to them might be very important to you. Or it is very important to you to have time on weekends away from work in order to recharge.
- Start with a “Yes”
Instead of starting with “I’m sorry…”, begin by highlighting whatever your positive priority is right now and why it is important or meaningful to you.
For example: “I am attending a gathering with some of my dearest friends this weekend. It is special because some of us haven’t seen each other in a while and we are celebrating some important events in our lives.”
- State Your “No”
Explain that you are sorry, but this means that you can’t do the thing they have asked you to do.
For example: “However this means that I will be unable to work on this project this weekend. I understand this isn’t ideal for you and I’m very sorry.”
- Warmth and suggestion
Perhaps there is an offer or suggestion you can make without detracting from your real priorities.
For example: “I will prioritize work on this project during this week, so that I can get as much done as possible before this weekend.”
Your needs and wants are important and it is up to you to make sure you empower yourself and stand up for what’s important to you. What is the worst that can happen? That you don’t get promoted, get fired from your job, or if you run your own business, that you will lose a client? I used to be afraid of that, but I am no longer. The key are your answers to question #3. Once you know your values and priorities, you can decide what is most important to you. Upholding your values and priorities or keeping your job or client that is not in line with them?
Each time you assert your needs and values, you are empowering yourself. What will you say “no” to today?