The art of saying 'no'
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'No' seems to be the hardest word

I was a good ten years into my career when a wise friend who saw me overworked and stressed asked me whether I tended to do everything that landed on my desk. I wasn’t sure I even understood the question. Of course I did. That was my job, right?

Back then, my wise friend gave me the best piece of career advice I have ever received: she told me to start saying no. 

That same afternoon I was approached by my boss who wanted me to stay late to do some additional work. I took a deep breath and told him that I already had plans and couldn’t help out this time. To my surprise, he was completely OK with this, and set off to find another solution.

From working with my clients I know that over-committing is a common issue. Somehow, we are convinced that by saying no we look lazy, unprofessional and less likeable, and might even be closing down future opportunities. Or we simply love being the team hero. 

Whatever our reasons for saying yes, we hope that doing more and more work and dealing with whatever is thrown at us will be recognised and eventually rewarded.

I’m convinced the opposite is true. Successful and respected professionals know how to prioritise and manage resources, including their own time.

Here are just a few good reasons to say no.

  • You might not be the best qualified person to take on the task. 
  • The job might sit firmly in someone else’s area of responsibility.
  • By saying yes, you might spread yourself so thinly that you jeopardise the quality of everything else you're doing.
  • You might not be able to stick to other commitments you have made, both at work and also outside of work.
  • What you have been asked to do is in direct conflict with your values and what you believe is right.

Whatever the reasons for saying no, the question is how we can do it gracefully. I think the answer is actually simple: be polite and friendly, but firm and unapologetic.

Unlike me, don’t underestimate the power of saying no.

Try this

For the next week, when asked to do any additional work, buy yourself some time before giving an answer by saying something like “let me get back to you” or “let me check my diary first”. This could be five minutes, 24 hours or even more, depending on the complexity of what you have been asked to do.

During this time, find answers to the following questions:
  • Do I know enough about what exactly I have been asked to do?
  • What are the consequences of saying yes? How will this impact on my other commitments, both at work and outside of work?
  • What are the consequences of saying no for everyone involved?
Make a decision on whether to say yes or no only once you have sufficient answers.

At the end of the week, reflect on your experience: What has it been like to make decisions in this way? What’s become possible as a result? 
What can I learn from this?
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