“I’m so tired and overloaded,” he exclaims. "How come?" I ask. "I don’t know why I keep saying yes to things,” he replies. "I’ve agreed to two new projects, to changing my plans, to a couple of truly messy meetings, and to a new committee role. It’s too much!”
Indeed, we have an epidemic of ‘yes.’
In theory, saying ‘no’ should be straightforward. But every day I talk to leaders that say ‘yes’ when they really want to say ‘no.’
We realized that ‘no’ is bad when mom and dad fussed at us for saying “I don’t want to go to bed/brush my teeth/ share with my sister.” We’ve been cajoled, bribed, or downright forced to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ So we learned to say ‘yes’ in order to please people, avoid conflict, not be criticized, get kudos and praise, prove our worth, demonstrate our commitments, and even show our love. Oy!
Turns out that saying ‘no’ is an act of maturity and personal power, and leadership skill of its own.
Of course, there are times when saying ‘yes’ is the exact right answer; times to agree, accede, compromise, and even capitulate. And even if you’re asked to do something that’ll cost you (family time, energy, money, falling behind on your duties), it can still be a ‘yes' if you’re staying true to your values, and the cost is worth it.
But if your ‘yes’ is an automatic reflex that has no boundaries, then you pay with your health, get burnt out, frustrated, disengaged, and even resentful. A default and automatic ‘yes’ isn’t a choice, it’s a habit. Your ability to say ‘no’ is correlated with making choices. Choices are correlated with having agency. Agency is correlated with personal power and saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ leaks away your power.
As a “healing” process, I invite you to be a conscious being at choice, and experiment with intentional ‘no.’ Turns out that when you feel your power and choose to say ‘no,’ you can then say ‘yes’ with genuine commitment and sincerity.
Next time someone invites you to a meeting, asks for a favor, or wants you to take on a project, in your mind, say ‘no.’ Don’t answer aloud yet. Listen to your heart and your gut, and notice what they are saying. Does saying ‘no’ make you more relaxed or more tense? Why say ‘yes?’ Is it to soothe or appease, to get approval or people please? Or is ‘yes’ your genuine choice? Mentally start with ‘no’ and then make a choice, but don’t just agree on autopilot.
Then if you want to say 'no' out loud, here are a few starters that you can adapt to your personal style.
“I can’t do this now, but I’d love to revisit this next week”
“I want to do a great job, and given everything on my plate, I can’t take this on and do a job I’m proud of. What do you think I should deprioritize?”
“I can’t do this, but Brenden over in Marketing might be interested.”
"I’m going to say no for now, but if conditions change, I promise I’ll get back to you.”
“I can’t do what you’re asking for, but I can do this instead.”
And, "No, I'm not going to do that."
As you bring on the ‘no,’ some folks will feel (and some will tell you) that you’re being selfish and “not a team player.” Not true. You’re becoming a conscious being at choice. I promise that with practice, saying ‘no’ makes you more effective, less overwhelmed, and more powerful.