As an employee with more on the to-do list and fewer people to help, it can be particularly hard to say “no.” Early on in a career, we could simply say “yes” to everything – to help out and to show off what we can do. Although there may be an advantage to saying “yes” at work, it can quickly lead you to become overloaded and burned out.
Of course, if you work somewhere like the ER or police force, where your action or inaction could have serious, even life-or-death consequences, there’s a lot more jeopardy. If you say “no,” you need to be sure that someone else can step in. But there’s also danger in saying “yes” to something that you won’t be able to do well.
Consider the who and the why
Whatever job you do, before you jump in and say “yes” to every request that comes your way, take a minute to really consider who’s asking, and what they’re asking you to do.
As we progress in our career we can definitely gain more confidence to say “no” to people. There’s a kind of a vulnerability in admitting you’re not the best person to do something. But that doesn’t mean it’s a weakness: it’s a sign that you know yourself, your job and your team, and that you can see who’s really the best person for the task.
Over time, you build up a bank of trust with your colleagues, which can make it much easier to say “no” if you need to.
Responsibility and regrets
Sometimes, the things that are asked of you might come with a lot of responsibility and pressure. Like being asked to lead on a big project, or to present something quite publicly. Saying “no” to these kinds of requests needs to be considered more carefully. On one hand, they might elevate you and increase your visibility at work, they could be good opportunities for progression. On the other, are you really prepared to do them – or would someone else be better equipped?
There’s also something called the “sunk-cost fallacy” to consider. The more you put into something – whether it’s time or investment – the harder it feels to pull out of it, even if you know, deep down, that it’s the right thing to do. You just can’t bear to lose all that money and time you’ve put in. But sometimes you need to know when to cut your losses and respectfully withdraw.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t look back and think of things that we could have done… the “paths not taken.” The CFTEA Executive Director, Andrew Lederer, had an opportunity to go and do some public presentations when working at a local non-profit, for instance. For various reasons, and after a lot of thought, he decided to say “no.”
That experience would probably have given Andrew lots of exciting opportunities. But he had done plenty of other interesting things since then, and time spent pondering regrets is often time wasted.
Saying “no” can be good for your health
Some tips on the importance of considering “no” would be thinking of your own wellbeing would be high up there. But you also have to balance that with the time you have available, your responsibilities, and your role within the team. How much should you think about yourself? How much should you help the person who’s asking you?
It’s important to take some time to think through the details and to weigh it all up so you can make a decision that’s right for everyone.
Consider the power dynamics of the situation as well. Try to work out whether you really have an option to say “no.” If it’s someone very senior… possibly not. Or, there may also be times when somebody asks you to do something and, after assessing things, you realize actually you are the best person for the task, and it is indeed your responsibility.
How to say “no” – the dos and don’ts
So, let’s say you’ve done all that thinking, and you’ve decided the right thing to do is to say “no.” How do you go about it?
A little bit of negotiation, or meeting in the middle, can work. So you could say, “No, I don’t have capacity for this at the moment, but here’s what I can do for you… .” Maybe you can recommend somebody else, or even agree to do a small part of it – but not the whole thing.
Clarity is important, too. There are times when we’ve all come away from a conversation and, being honest, we don’t think either of person knew whether we’d said “yes” or “no”!
So be assertive, but show empathy. There are times when the answer’s been “no,” but both parties have come away feeling understood and supported, with no hard feelings.
One more thing: don’t say “yes” if you know you’re going to say “no” shortly afterward. People have done that to all of us and we’ve probably done it, too. It can seem easier in the moment to say, “yes, that’s fine,” and then backtrack. But it’s a bit cowardly, isn’t it?
Saying “no” assertively requires a change in habits
Even when we know the right way to handle things – we don’t always follow our own advice! At times we can still be prone to just saying “yes, absolutely, whatever you want, I’ll get it done” even when we really shouldn’t.
But experience tells us that things go better when we take a moment to reflect, try not to worry about what people will think – and trust that, if anything, they’ll respect us more for making the right choice.
It is a lesson to learn that you have to protect your own wellbeing, as well the other work you need to get done, because saying “yes” too often can have a negative impact on them both.
But by getting better at saying “yes” to the right things, you can also enjoy that wonderful sense of relief that comes when you can confidently and politely say “no.”
Are you the people pleaser on your team? Do you find yourself always saying “yes,” even when you’re overloaded? Are you tired of taking on everyone else’s work but don’t know how to say “no”?
Fear not! The CFTEA course, Managing Emotions in Times of Stress and Uncertainty explores simple but effective strategies on how you can say “no” professionally and politely. You might also benefit from setting some clear boundaries to protect your own time and to avoid burnout! Coming soon – new audiobook Beating Burnout.