Can I be real with you for a second? For a long time, saying “no” made me really nervous. I thought that if I said that, my coworkers would dislike me and think I was trying to avoid work. After all, I spent my entire day with these people, so I wanted them to like me and think well of me. I still haven’t completely shaken off that feeling, but I’ve learned that saying no can actually mean the opposite: it’s a powerful privilege that’s led me closer and faster to my goals than just saying yes all the time.
Why We Say Yes
Saying yes is easy. It’s a quick way for people to think us agreeable, and if they do that, they’ll like us and want to spend more time with us. They’ll see us as helpful, polite and humble — willing to take time out of our day to do what’s asked of us.
It also validates other people’s thinking. They come to us and ask us to do a favour or task or whatever. When we say yes, it’s an implicit way of saying we agree that their request is worthy enough to devote time to, and that’s a great feeling to be on the receiving end of.
However, blindly saying yes can lead to potential conflicts when you agree without being able to deliver. Over-committing to requests can cause your coworkers to lose trust in your word because you aren’t doing what you said. It can also leave you feeling burned out if you scramble to get everything done. Ask yourself if the cost is worth the value of saying yes.
Why We Say No
Saying no, on the other hand, isn’t a bad thing. It means you know your own schedule and abilities, it means you respect yourself, and it means you respect others by not falsely promising something that won’t happen.
No is a powerful word. It might just be two letters, but it carries a lot of weight and has more meaning to it than might initially appear.
Think back to the last time a coworker asked you to do something and stop before when you responded. If you say yes, you’re not only agreeing to that request, you’re also rejecting every other alternative. But if you say no, you’re only rejecting that one request and still leaving all other possibilities on the table.
It might seem counter-intuitive to say no, but there are always multiple options for how something can happen. By saying yes, you’re agreeing on how the future will look for that particular task; but if you say no, you’re still leaving some room for different ways it can take shape. When it comes to time, think of “yes” as a time debt and “no” as a time credit.
Or, in other words, a decision versus a responsibility.
When You Need to Say No
The first thing to learn about saying no is when to say it: when it’s not possible for you to uphold expectations if you take part. This could be anything from saying no to the date or amount of time required to saying no to any element in the task — or even the task itself.
The trick is to really understand your time, the time it takes to complete the request, and if it’s fully possible to do it well. If you’re unsure about any of the three, then don’t say yes just yet. Figure out what needs to happen before you can get there.
How to Learn to Say No
It’s not easy saying no. It takes courage and practice to do it, and to do it with confidence. It also takes experience to learn when saying no is the stronger option.
The good news is, there are plenty of different ways of saying no. You can substitute it with “I can’t right now”, “I choose not to”, “let me think about it”, “I can’t do X, but I can do Y”, “I’ve got to finish a high-priority task” or “my time is already committed”.
Another important thing to keep in mind is to avoid rationalizing your no. You’re not obliged to explain why you’re turning down specific request, even if it feels like you should (unless it’s your boss, in which case the question might require a different response). All you have to do is say no in a concise, polite way.
Remember, “no” is a complete sentence.
We’ve become so conditioned to say and hear yes that the word no can be downright startling. I’ll never forget this one time in university where I was tasked with selecting a winning essay for my department’s student-run journal. I wanted to verify I was making the right choice, so I asked my professor to take a look. He said he didn’t have the time. As shocked as I was, I completely respected that because I knew he was telling me the truth. And as much as I wanted his opinion and expertise, I was, in a way, glad he said no because I realised I wouldn’t have gotten it.
It takes time and practice to learn when and how to say no. But if you keep at it, you’ll become a stronger employee to your team.
Related: 7 Productivity Hacks to Use at Work