The Art of Saying No
Mastering the art of saying “no” is worth its weight in gold, explains tech veteran Ellen Leanse.
By Ellen Leanse (Tech Veteran, Investor & Entrepreneur)
“Take what you wish,” says a wise Spanish proverb. “And pay for it.”
Every choice we makes comes with a price.
And at a moment in time where we’re all encouraged to say – no, leap at – saying “Yes!,” we must remember that every yes comes with a price: a no to another action or possibility.
And yet so many people say they have trouble saying no.
If “yes” is Wonder Woman (or super man), then “no” is Debbie Downer. We dread saying no. We feel like we’re letting people down, not living up to expectations, “not being nice.” We feel pressure to say yes, even when the price paid is other commitments that matter to us.
And so we agree to do things or spend time with people that leave us feeling like we’ve let other things or people – or ourselves – down. We feel fragmented, ineffectual. And we blame ourselves.
What if we thought about the “yes” hiding in every “no” and the “no” hiding in every “yes”? What if we learned to say no in a way that felt more like a yes?
Taking What We Wish
We navigate life making constant micro-decisions about what to do moment-to- moment. Each step, whether literal or figurative, points us in a new direction. And we can get lost, whether navigating a city street or following our path in life.
Busy thoroughfare or busy day, the only way to end up where we belong is if we know where we’re going. If we’re due at an appointment at a set time, we don’t meander down an unplanned path unless there’s something more important than our destination waiting on that sidetrack.
Yet in our business (and our personal lives) we often let ourselves get pulled away by other people’s needs, requests, or pressure to do things we feel we have to do. Sure, sometimes the unplanned digressions are worthy tradeoffs: they get us closer to where we want to go.
But sometimes, we all know, they aren’t worth what we pay for them.
Example: someone asks you to go with them to an event you’re not really interested in, but you feel obliged to say yes. You feel like you “have” to so you don’t let them down. You go, but you resent it, or feel compromised. Deep inside, you wish you’d said no. You may have won their approval, or met their need, but at the price of disappointing or taxing yourself.
Come on, we know we’ve all been there. Take what you wish. And pay for it.
Paying for It
The problem with saying no may stem from how hard it is to map our real purpose: the actual impact we’re here to make in life, relationships, or work. We all have something important to achieve or experience on our life path, but it’s often hard to know what it is. Unlike a city street, this path hasn’t been mapped; we can’t usually pinpoint the place where we’re heading.
As a result it’s easy to meander: to follow somebody else’s direction rather than step forward on our own. When you agree to help a co-worker out of a preventable mess-up, when you talk a friend through a drama you’ve seen them go through one too many times, when you agree to meet a friend-of-a-friend so that they can “pick your brain” (here’s why we should eliminate that phrase once and for all), we often say yes when we want to say no.
Sometimes it’s worth it: there’s value in that yes. You can come up with a reason why saying yes supports a priority, even if that priority is as simple as “I want to help this person out.” You took what you wished and paid for it with your time and attention, and the exchange felt right.
But often saying yes doesn’t leave us feeling good. It feels like we didn’t have the clarity, courage, or conviction to say no. Or didn’t even know how to say it. So we ended up feeling like we wasted our time or diluted our focus on something that didn’t move us forward. We traded our sense of self-approval for the validation we sought in someone else. We can feel that. Our gut doesn’t lie.
When that happens, we need to look at what we took, why we wished for it, and what we paid for it.
The Price of Pleasing or Proving
Often we say yes because we want to please other people: to seek their approval or to prove to them that we’re what they want us to be.
Saying yes to things we want to say no to often makes us regret or feel resentful. I hear it often from people I coach: they feel obliged to say yes, “feel like a bad person” if they say no, or express concern that they’re “being selfish” (like that’s a bad thing?). They’re afraid people will think they’re “not being nice” – like they’re letting someone down if they value their own path above that of another person’s.
When we “yes” things we’d rather “no,” we are taking what we wish – pleasing or proving to others – and paying for it with our own diminished sense of accomplishment and impact.
That implies that we value pleasing the other person more than we do taking care of ourselves. We’re trading validation by others for the satisfaction – and accountability – of achieving what really matters to us.
Sometimes it’s great to meander: on a physical path, we can discover fantastic things on unexpected routes (and still get where we’re going) when we wander or sidetrack.
But sometimes those wanderings can lead to dead ends. They can get us lost, or cause us not to reach our destination in time.
The same holds true on our non-physical path.
Feeling Good About Saying No
Fortunately, there’s a way to think differently about saying no.
The first step is to pause for a moment. I could go on and on about how we’re conditioned to answer fast. It makes us react, rather than reflect, and so we often answer without thinking. So give yourself a moment to think about it. Even ask for a moment to think about it.
Next, trust your gut. Our feelings are a unique form of intelligence that should complement our mental processing. If it feels like “no,” listen to that. Ask yourself why you feel that way. Get clear on your answer (it may take a few “why?” questions). And then act on the deeper answer you find.
If your “whys” bring you to a no answer, good news: you have options.
The “alternate” yes. Learn to give an “alternate yes,” one that’s different than the one you were asked for. What CAN you do for them? Example: Your co-worker asked you to edit a product roadmap over the weekend. For whatever reason – no validation necessary – you aren’t available to do that.
What CAN you do? Send them an example of one you’ve done in the past? Point them to a handy web resource? If your gut tells you it’s not right to say yes, listen to that – and come up with something that lets them “self serve” a solution without depending on you.
Other examples? A friend asks you to take them to the airport when you feel they should figure that out for themselves. Someone asks you to coffee to “pick your brain” or talk about something you’ve already hashed out with them. What can you offer them as an alternative? You don’t have to say yes to what they asked. But you have choices other than just saying no.
The “if-then” yes. Sometimes we see things that we want to say yes to, but for some reason we’re not quite ready. What can you ask for before you do say yes? Example: someone in your community wants help updating their resume. Rather than say yes to that brainstorm they asked for, tell them that you’d be happy to meet once they’d updated their draft with their latest information. “If” they do that, “then” you’re happy to meet, and you feel sure the time will be more productive. Help them do their part so that your time is used well.
And state it as a positive! “Sure, as soon as…” or “I can, once we’re clear on …” My article on effective meeting management introduces some of this thinking. “You bet. I’d love to take a look once you’ve finished your first draft” – that’s a great yes answer.
The “Yes to a higher priority” yes (which, I can’t lie, is also a “no”). Can you find a way to state, as positively and politely as possible, why you’re not able to say yes to them at this time? In other words, make it about a yes to yourself, and take a moment to explain that. “Thanks for asking, and under other circumstances I’d be happy to help. But I’m committed to completing a key project on deadline (or spending evening time with my family, or staying focused on the responsibilities I’ve already taken on).”
No one ever tells you that it’s OK – actually, awesome – to hold yourself accountable to your own responsibilities and purpose. Telling people that you are prioritizing things you’ve already committed to is actually a great way to set an example that may help others do the same for themselves.
Finally, recognize what you’re paying for when you say no. Get clear on what you said yes to instead, and make sure that decision is worthwhile. Finish that paper on schedule. Get that workout in. Be focused on family time. Reflect on what you learned by prioritizing your own purpose or plan over something someone wanted from you. Learn from the “yes” in your “no”.
Pro tip: Read entrepreneur Darmesh Shah’s take on saying no. I felt some comfort in the fact that he struggled with no, too). And check out the comments. I agree: if you aren’t saying “Hell Yes!” you should at least consider saying no.
Paying It Forward
I had an unexpected lesson when I recently told a person no.
She was exactly the type of person who made me want to say yes: talented and likeable, yet feeling lost on her path. She wanted a mentor, and a mutual friend said I’d be a great one. We met, once, and at the end she asked me if I would help her with a life plan, and if she could call on me when she needed advice and support.
I wanted to be a nice person. I wanted her to tell our mutual friend that I’d been awesome. I wanted her not to feel as alone as she told me she felt.
I almost said yes, without thinking (see “react,” above). But I paused, only for a moment or two. My gut told me that one more commitment would fragment me and take my focus off of existing priorities. Ultimately, I knew I would let both her and myself down if I said yes. Worse yet, I might begin to feel resentful of spending time with her.
So I thought about an alternate yes I could give her. I told her about resources that had been helpful to me as I sought clarity on my own priorities and path. Not an overwhelming number, but a few key gems. And I told her I’d forward her good resources I came across that seemed aligned with her concerns.
Then, I gave her an “if-then.” Once she set out a plan for herself, I told her, I’d be happy to take a look at it and offer some feedback. I left the ball in her court about when. She had something to do before I could give her the yes she sought.
Finally, I told her the “why” behind my no. I said that I wouldn’t actually be a good mentor if I said yes, because I’d not be setting an example of being focused on my key priorities and goals.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. As I was doing this, I was second-guessing myself. Wouldn’t it be easier “just” to tell her yes?
But I powered through. She looked so sad I wondered if I’d made a mistake. And then I told myself that I’d damn well better take my other priorities seriously if I was paying for them by hurting a cool person’s feelings.
Then the awesome thing happened.
About a month later she sent me an email. She told me that she had thought a lot about how often she said yes when she knew she probably shouldn’t. She said she realized that she was letting distractions get in the way of holding herself accountable to her real goals. She tried a version of the no I’d given her on a co-worker who always seemed to need something from her. It was scary at first, she said. But she felt the difference. She felt more responsible to the work she knew she needed to do, and more in control of her decisions and path.
It hit me that my no was more helpful than any yes could have been.
I realized I’d taken what I wished, though at first that felt hard. I’d paid for it, like the Spanish proverb said.
What I never counted on is that my no would be worth its weight in gold.
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About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) has worked in Silicon Valley for 30+ years, spanning Apple, Google, and Facebook app development. Her work in the US, Europe, Africa, and Latin America informs her views on tech’s impact on global change. Named one of tech’s top marketers and a Silicon Valley Woman of Influence, Ellen currently advises early-stage companies.