Saying no, without excuses

One of the most important lessons we (hopefully) learn as we go through life is that our time and our energy are not infinite.  I admit I’m one of the guiltiest of behaving as if they are; cognitively, however,  I really do know better.  An important lesson that I learned in a very bumpy fashion a couple of years ago is that saying yes does mean saying no to something else.  I was asked by our Dean (you know, the BIG Dean) to take on a liaison role with an external organization.  I did think a little bit before I said yes, mostly because the role would provide a direct schedule conflict with another commitment that I enjoy.  Ultimately, I was blinded by being flattered to have been asked, said yes to the Dean’s request…and regretted every moment of that yes.  The regret wasn’t about the Dean at all.  The regret was instead about taking on a role that was ill-suited to my personal priorities and my career interests, and having sacrificed something I valued deeply to do so.  I resigned the liaison position within the year, which was received graciously, and recognize the whole chain of events as a lesson learned the hard way.  I won’t discuss how many days I labored over that resignation email…I think I’ve had some publications that have required less time.

While my trade-off was almost purely at the professional level in this particular instance, so many of our yes and no choices have a broader ripple effect, requiring us to sacrifice the personal for the professional or the self for the collective.  Culturally, we’re taught not to say no.  It’s a form of rejection, it makes us feel like we’re disappointing people, we have the dreaded fear of missing out if we say no.  And while saying no is against most of our nature, it’s particularly challenging for women, minorities, and those in more junior roles.

By not saying no (also known as “saying yes”), we’re giving up something- as in my story, or perhaps something more valuable at a core personal level.  If not-no doesn’t force us into a trade-off with our activities, we are pushing ourselves a bit closer to the brink of exhaustion because we are trading off sleep or yoga or a run.  Yes has costs.

I’m not advocating that we all run around saying, “No!” like a bunch of two-year-olds for the next week.  But your time and my time are valuable, and the choices we make should reflect our priorities, our values…what matters most to us.  If we say yes to everything, we’re not showing others that we believe our time is valuable and we’re not showing them who we really are.  The reality is that to function at the high level that we all tend to favor, we need to say no.  And when we say no, it should be said bravely, without any expectation.  The way I have heard it described is, “No is a complete sentence.”  If you don’t want to use it as a complete sentence, what about making a list of the ways to say no that work best for you?  Some starters:

  • “I can’t do that right now.  You might talk to (fill in the blank with someone’s name here who would be interested in the request and possibly able to fulfill it).”
  • “I really couldn’t give that the attention it deserves, and I don’t want to disappoint everyone involved.”
  • “I am having to narrow my responsibilities right now, and this won’t fit in.”
  • Or, alternatively, “No, and thank you for thinking of me.”

No.  It’s a brave word.  It’s also an important one.  Channel your inner two-year-old (who may have been more prescient than any of us realized) by saying no- and meaning it.


3 thoughts on “Saying no, without excuses

  1. Well done, well said. Like you and so many others, I have struggled with No (and have written about it but not yet shared