What advice would you give your younger self? For many of us, it’s definitely been this: have the discipline to say no. And if you can’t say no, learn how to say not now or not yet

All too often, particularly among high achievers and young professionals, we have a tendency to believe that saying yes makes us better. But there’s just as much power in a wise no as there is in an enthusiastic yes.

If you tend towards yes, take heart: a reactive yes often comes from a good place. We may think that when we say yes, we appear more productive, show more potential for future opportunities or lay groundwork for a full life. But the reality isn’t always the rosy picture we paint in our minds when we say yes. The reality: burnout is very real, and saying no is a critical discipline. Explore what drives our responses, and how we can build the discipline to say no when it’s needed.

Why we say yes

So why do we say yes when we really mean no? Our inability to set boundaries may arise from a fear of disapproval and rejection or a deep desire to help because that’s what you’d want someone to do for you. But as every yes weighs down on you, it can lead to chaos.

Dr. Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, brings up a fascinating point. Does our inclination to say yes reflect our self-worth? Perhaps, if we truly believed in our own value, it would be easier for us to say no when the request doesn’t align with our mission and our time. 

Sometimes, our yes is rooted in fear. What if I say no to that extra project at work, or if I say no to chairing that committee, and I’m never offered the opportunity again? What if I say no and that changes what people think about me? What if people think I said no because I’m incapable of taking it on? Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

The significance of no

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others,” Brené says. “Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say ‘Enough!’”

Saying no is an important step in establishing boundaries. Dr. Brené Brown, teaches that boundaries are essential to becoming an empowered, capable person. 

“Leaders must invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior,” Brené also says

It can help to frame your no in the context of yes. No is an important answer because every no saves space for a better yes later on. No is a valuable answer because it provides space for someone else to say yes.

From balance to harmony

Trying to find balance among all your yeses can be a wild ride. If we’re constantly pursuing balance, it’s a fruitless search. Instead of chasing balance, aim to find harmony. 

Think about it this way: is anything in life every completely balanced? Perfect balance is elusive, and when we hustle after balance, we can lose sight of the big picture. In order to have career longevity (and, let’s face it, life longevity!) and focus on the things that matter, we need the disciple to say no — and this is what establishes harmony.

The next time you’re asked to take on another huge project, do something that’s totally unaligned with your goals or participate in something you aren’t passionate about, remember that no is a boundary. No helps you lean into harmony.

When you create harmony in your life with boundaries, your yeses will be all the better. Only with the proper amount of time and brain space will you be able to give your best to the things you do say yes to. 

Strategies for saying no

When you’re first learning to say no, it can feel a bit foreign and complex. Here are some strategies to say no with excellence.

  • Leave feelings out of it.

One reason why we sometimes say yes when we mean no is to protect others’ feelings. For example, if you’re asked to join colleagues for happy hour after work, but you’d really prefer to spend time with your spouse, remove emotions from the equation. You’re not saying no because you dislike your coworkers, or you don’t care about them. You’re saying no to prioritize your yes to time with your spouse.

  • Use discretion, and know when to explain and when to keep things simple.

Sometimes saying no doesn’t require an explanation. What you want to share is up to you, and in many situations, a simple “no, thank you” is just fine. But in other professional scenarios, an explanation is called for. For example, when your boss requests something of you, it’s respectful to offer a bit of context. Explain that in order to take on that new initiative, you would need to readjust previously set priorities to accomplish it. 

  • Steer clear of defensiveness.

On the other side of the spectrum is the tendency to become defensive. Especially if you’re asked for what feels like the hundredth time to chair a committee, getting defensive can be a slippery slope. No need to list the other committees you sit on or get on a soapbox about how long it’s been since you had a moment to yourself. Your decision is yours alone — you do not need to defend your choice.

  • Swap “yes” for “I’ll get back to you.”

In the pressure of the moment, we can say yes by mistake when a no is more appropriate. It’s okay to take time to think things through. When you feel yourself about to say yes — even though your heart is leaning towards no — this can be a powerful tactic. Say you need time to respond, tell them when they can expect your reply and express your gratitude for the opportunity. That’s all it takes.

  • Build scripts to empower yourself.

When you feel tempted to say yes, it can help to have go-to scripts. A few to get you started:

  • Professional
    • Thanks for thinking of me. Your project sounds fantastic. As much as I would love to be involved, I can’t give it the attention it deserves right now.
    • While I would love to connect about this new initiative, I’ve learned that this is one of those things I need to decline so I can focus on ___ (finishing the client campaign, editing my book, growing my business). Thanks for understanding.
    • While I need to say no, consider reaching out to ___ (a colleague, networking connection or organization member). She may be a good fit and this opportunity could be a real gift for her.
    • I need to say no to this project, as saying yes requires changes in timelines for other projects. Let’s discuss the necessary adjustments for me to say yes. 
  • Civic
    • My heart wants to say yes, and I’m honored by your request. But the reality of my other commitments means I must say no. Thanks for understanding. 
    • Saying no is hard but necessary. I’m refocusing my priorities this season. You’re welcome to reach out in the future if something like this is available another time.
    • I’m at my capacity and I can’t give your request the attention it deserves right now. But I’m cheering for your success! 
  • Personal
    • I’m coming out of a truly busy season, and I’ve been running at breakneck speed for awhile now. I’m learning to navigate all that’s on my plate, so I need to say no.
    • I’ve promised my family/spouse/children/myself not to take on something new. Thanks for our friendship that lets me be honest.
    • While I don’t have the flexibility for dinner, I could ___ (meet for a brief coffee, speak for a few minutes by phone, etc.).

Saying no can be a great step forward to achieving your goals and being there for the people who matter most. Challenge yourself to say no at least once this week just to see how it feels. With a little bit of practice, you’ll get into the discipline of saying no to create more harmony and help you become your very best.

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