Saying no and not feeling guilty about it is a skill most of us would like to enhance. The ability to say no is one of the ways we demonstrate assertiveness. It’s how we balance our commitments to others with a commitment to ourselves, our priorities and well-being. Of course, saying no guilt-free is never about being rude or unhelpful, nor does it give you permission to be derelict in your responsibilities.
In part one of this article, I shared the common fears and limiting beliefs that shackle us when it comes to saying no. I also mentioned the importance of having a vision for yourself, a blueprint of how you would ideally like to engage with others. Together, they are the push and pull motivational factors when it comes to saying no.
In this follow-up article, I’m focusing on the practicalities, tips and phrases for you to try out. Of course, there is no one right way to say no, it is all context-dependent.
There are times when you don’t have to give a detailed explanation as to why you are not available or can’t take on more work. Instead of explaining yourself with a laundry list of excuses, that you vainly hope will foster sympathy and alleviate guilt, a simple ‘I can’t’ will suffice. Remember ‘no’ is a complete sentence. Some phrases that I find helpful are –
‘Sorry, I can’t my schedule is full.’
‘Unfortunately, I’m unable to take this on. But thank you for thinking of me.’
‘I’ve another commitment, but thank you for the invitation.’
‘That’s not something I can commit to at this time.’
The phrase ‘I’m not available’ is more effective than ‘sorry I don’t have the time.’ The latter people can view as an excuse, whereas ‘I’m not available’ presupposes you’re organised and have a variety of pre-existing commitments.
A speedy response delivers certainty, people know straight away where they stand. You are managing their expectations. Avoid saying you’ll revert if you can help the other person out. More often than not, you’re giving them false hope and preventing them from seeking a solution elsewhere. If you know you can’t take something on, be truthful and say so right away. If you delay, the other person is not going to disappear, their reminder will follow.
When the demand on your time comes from your manager, a close friend, or an important client, someone with whom you already have an established relationship, it’s a good idea to provide a little more context as to why you have to decline their request. In this instance, honesty is the best policy. When your intention is, to be honest and upfront, reasonable people respond in a reasonable way.
It doesn’t always have to be a strong ‘no.’ There will be times when you can suggest another option. If I’m saying no to a request, I will always try to give the person something in return. This might be a resource I can forward to them, a link I can share, a potential contact or a piece of advice that they might find helpful. I find these phrases useful –
That doesn’t work for me, but how about…… would that work?
I’d be delighted to help, but I wouldn’t be able to start until……
This one should be in every people manager’s toolbox. You are encouraging and empowering the other person to tackle the task themselves, whilst letting them know that you are available if they have a question. It’s a skill typically associated with delegation. ‘You got this, but feel free to check in with me’ is what being a cheerleader is all about.
It is easier to ‘say no’ when you know what you are ‘saying yes’ to. This presupposes knowing your priorities. In a work context, this means having a ‘to do’ list for the week ahead. The way I view it, every ‘yes’ requires a ‘no’ and every ‘no’ clarifies and empowers a ‘yes’ because there will always be trade-offs. A tip I find helpful here is to have a ‘not to do’ list to accompany my ‘to do’ list.
Some jobs by their nature are reactive, with others, there’s an opportunity to be more proactive. Irrespective of your role we can lean towards proactivity by predicting behaviours and requests.
As adults, we have the freedom to choose our response in situations. The wider the gap between stimulus and response the more mature we are, and the more control we exercise. In all relationships, we only do 50% of the relating, but we are 100% responsible for our 50%. We ensure our intention is to be helpful and professional and we can choose how we respond to others. What I’ve found is that if the other person overreacts, it is usually a sign of unresolved issues they have elsewhere that has nothing to do with me. If someone demonstrates rudeness or lack of professionalism, they are merely advertising who they are.
Enhancing all soft skills involves practice and feedback as you progress in a direction you want to go. Predict a situation where you would like to be more proactive in saying no. Have a prompt, perhaps a phrase on a post-it note. Practice saying it, even to yourself. Start small when you decide to push back, something fairly inconsequential. When you’ve given it a go, acknowledge your effort and take pride in the courage you’ve tapped into.
By not practising how to say no we rob ourselves of the power to control or lives and the way we spend our time. Learning to say ‘no’ is a building block of self-confidence. You are patrolling your boundaries and establishing that your needs are worthy of time and respect. Saying no creates the space for you to focus on the activities that are either core to your job, or more broadly bring you joy and satisfaction. Our time and energy are precious commodities by learning to say no we are demonstrating their value.
If you enjoyed this post make sure you read part one titled ‘Saying no guilt free – part 1’ and if you can like podcasts then make sure you check out this episode of my podcast Your Time With James Sweetman where I talk about this very topic.
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