The power of ‘No’


Looks so simple, doesn’t it? Just two little letters. So why is “No” often one of the hardest words to say?

If you find yourself continually saying Yes to things – social events, extra work, favours to friends – when really you’d rather say No, then you’re not alone. We live in a society where to say Yes is to be seen as a fun, outgoing, adventurous risk taker. The kind of person who you’d want to invite to parties (and who’d always accept your invitation), someone who’d be great to work with, a brilliant friend to have. Automatically, then, we see saying No as a negative. People who say No are too cautious, or unhelpful or rude. 

And it’s true that saying Yes can lead to amazing things. Perhaps saying Yes to a blind date means you meet the love of your life; saying Yes to a job offer could lead to increased success and job satisfaction. 

But when saying Yes leaves you feeling depleted, overworked, anxious or taken advantage of, something needs to change. You need to learn the amazing power of No!

Why Do We Say Yes When We Want To Say No?

Firstly, it helps to look at why you’re saying Yes even when it doesn’t serve you, or worse, actually harms you. For most people, there are simple and positive reasons behind their reluctance to say No. Maybe you are very empathetic and hate to see people struggle so just want to help. Maybe you don’t want to be seen as a negative person, or a party-pooper. Maybe you want your boss or your family to see you as capable, competent and able to cope.

Sometimes people pleasing can have a more negative foundation. If you were brought up to believe that saying Yes means you’re the kind, sweet and polite one, who everyone can rely on then to go against the grain is very difficult – both for you and for those around you who expect you to behave the way you always have. Perhaps your Yes-ing comes from fear of rejection – if I say no will this person leave me? Will they get angry at me? Whatever your reasons are, it’s helpful to identify and notice them – but don’t judge yourself for them. Accept that at their root they are well intentioned, they may have had their place in the past, but now your needs have changed.  

Why Does Everyone Ask You?

So why do your parents always come to you for help over your sibling? Why does your boss choose to hand projects to you rather than your colleague? Again, there are often positive reasons behind this. Maybe you seem cool as a cucumber, taking everything in your stride, when people don’t realise that you’re actually like the swan – serene on the surface but paddling madly to keep going underneath. Of course nobody wants to be seen as someone who can’t cope, but there’s nothing wrong with a little well placed honesty. Letting people know when you’re struggling doesn’t have to be scary and it doesn’t mean that your boss won’t trust you anymore. You’re not a superhero and what’s more, you don’t have to be!

The Downsides of Saying Yes

We know that good things come of choosing Yes but like any good thing, you can over do it. Too many ill advised Yes-es will make you unhappy and exhausted, you’ll feel overworked and spread too thin. If it goes on too long you will burn out. There’s a saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. If a full cup is your energy reserves, your enthusiasm, your motivation, your mental and emotional resources, then saying Yes indiscriminately simply means you’ll be running on empty in no time. 

And you could be hurting others, too. If you said Yes to your friend’s birthday party despite knowing you’d be tired from a busy week at work, then cancelling last minute will bruise feelings and make you appear flakey. If you take on more work than you can handle and end up missing deadlines you’ll look unreliable and could even lose your job. 

Sometimes saying Yes to one thing can mean having to let down someone else. It’s great to help a friend move house, but not if it means cancelling lunch with your sister who’s having a hard time and needs a shoulder to cry on. And No can sometimes be kinder than saying Yes. If you go on a date with someone who you’re not really that into they’ll be all the more disappointed than if you’d let them down gently in the first place. 

You can end up resenting the person who asked, feeling disappointed that you let yourself or someone else down, and losing respect from others, or worse, yourself.

Don’t think that it needs to be all Yes or all No – the healthiest thing is to work on introducing balance. 

The Power of No

Think of some times in your life when saying No was the most positive thing you could do. Maybe giving up smoking, sticking to an exercise regime (and saying no to binging on that boxset on the sofa), turning down an invitation to a weekend away because you were saving for something – these are all times when you said No in order to get to a better Yes.

Wielded wisely, No is like a shield – it will help you protect yourself. You may feel like people wouldn’t ask if you couldn’t handle it but you know your life and your capabilities better than anyone, so be your own best advocate. 

Think of No as a litmus test – if people don’t respect your No are they really people you want to be around? If you feel that you’re unable to ever say No, then this is not a relationship; you are being controlled. The people who respect and appreciate your No are the ones who truly matter. Sometimes it’s not that simple of course. When the person asking is your boss or a family member you probably won’t want to just walk away! This is where strong boundaries are vital. Reset expectations by being firm and consistent. 

How to Say No

It doesn’t matter if you’re the mildest mannered, sweetest person in the world who wouldn’t say Boo to a goose – you CAN say No, kindly, firmly and calmly. Here’s how:

Firstly, check in with yourself – how do you really feel when being asked to do this thing? If you’re feeling exhausted, wrung out, or if the idea of taking on one more thing gives you a feeling of dread then it’s probably time to think about saying No. 

And how does that make you feel? What exactly are you worrying about? Losing your job, not being liked, being thought of as weak, being gossiped about – whatever it is remember: your worries are not facts. In all probability things will seem worse than they really are but either way, how other people react is not your responsibility. 

So how to actually say No? You don’t have to suddenly morph into an aggressive or rude person. You can use your excellent qualities or kindness and empathy to help you say No. 

Be diplomatic. Thank the person for thinking of you, you’d love to help but on this occasion you will have to say no. 

Ask for time to think about it (but not as a stalling tactic hoping they forget because they won’t and this will make you look unreliable). You can let them know that you need time to check your diary/consider the request and that you’ll get back to them within a certain timeframe (and then make sure you do).

If you can, offer some advice. Say that your workload is too heavy at present to take anything else on but you’re happy to provide some resources to help them instead. 

Don’t make it personal. Your No is about you, your life and your capacity at the moment. You’d love to have dinner with your old friend but you simply have to much going on at present. You hope you’ll be able to see them another time. 

Whatever you do, don’t lie. If you say you can’t do overtime because it’s your Great Granny’s funeral and then your boss sees you on the beach on social media then you’ll be in her serious bad books (not to mention your Great Granny’s). You will almost certainly get found out which will harm your reputation. Even if you don’t you’ll feel guilty, and will lose some respect for yourself. 

If you’re saying No to a friend, help them through their upset. If they’re a true friend then it’s understandable that they’ll be sad not to see you, even though they understand why you can’t make it. 

The question of whether to offer an explanation or compromise for your No is a tricky one and will depend on the situation. Sometimes a short explanation will help to reassure the other person that you will be available in the future. A compromise may help your boss adjust her expectations and give you a more reasonable workload, while showing that you’re solution focused. For example, you’re happy to take X on as well as Y and Z, however you will need three weeks rather than two in order to give them the time and attention they deserve.

Sometimes though, “No” is a complete sentence which needs no qualifiers or justifications. For those who don’t respect your boundaries, just say no. It’s enough. You don’t owe these people an explanation. 

Empower Yourself by Saying No

When you say No in order to focus on something important, or to something that isn’t in line with your values, when you say No in order to get to a better Yes, when you say No in order to rest and refill your cup, you are empowering yourself to live a better life. To enjoy and be more productive and effective at work. To focus on the relationships that really matter to you. To put those who are truly important first – and Yes, that includes yourself. 

When you say No you give your Yes more power. People will know that if you choose to show up, to help out, to take on work, that your Yes wasn’t just a reflex action, or an inability to speak up. Your Yes will have real meaning. 

Do you find it difficult not to say yes, or have you embraced the power of No?

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