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The Art of Saying “No” Thoughtfully

Saying no is easy…when it’s in your head. 

In reality saying no, especially at work, is really hard. As a result we often end up saying yes so many times that we overload our plates and burn out. 

Not Saying No Leads to Burnout

Burnout, or a constant feeling of exhaustion, is incredibly common. Two-thirds of full-time employees reported that they’ve experienced burnout at some point in their careers. Much of this has to do with the transitionary nature of the workplace, with most of us now navigating hybrid environments where calendars tend to fill up with meetings and the ability to prioritize your workload becomes even more nuanced and difficult. Not only that, but we’re still in the midst of the “great resignation,” as people reach an ultimate decision: should they stay at a job that doesn’t accommodate flexible work?

With May being Mental Awareness Month, a time dedicated to fighting the stigma around mental health and advocating for the support of the one in ten people on this earth who suffer from some mental health disorder, it’s ample time we talk about the power in the strategic “no.” And notably, you don’t have to experience anxiety or burnout to relish in the opportunity to learn more about prioritizing your time. Most of us, especially in the business world, are guilty of defaulting to “yes.”

Why Do We Have Trouble Saying “No?”


There are four, basic reasons we have trouble saying no:

Any of these reasons hit particularly close to home for you? For me it’s basically all of them, especially FOMO. I am constantly wondering “What If?” and tend to gravitate towards advocating for saying yes, even if I know I don’t have the bandwidth. I’ll tell myself I’ll drink extra coffee or sleep a little less because of the potential benefits. 

But the truth is, I’m not asking myself this one simple question: If by saying YES to this, am I saying NO to a BETTER use of my time?

A better use of my time may be the core projects I’m working on, or it may be not working at all! Unfortunately, at least in America, we tend to only signify work and productivity as “good uses” of our time, and we end up feeling GUILTY for prioritizing things like exercising, socializing, self-reflecting or even eating (Okay I have to admit I’ve never been one to skip a meal, but still!). 

“Frankly, up until that point my hobby was work. While I did enjoy reading, traveling, and journaling, I hadn’t had much time to explore. Now I am not saying that the way things are done in Europe is the perfect way, but it did raise the question of what it means to live and see work as one of the many things you do and not just fully who you are.”

- Monica H. Kang, Rethink Creativity: How to Innovate, Inspire and Thrive at Work

In conclusion, if you say “yes” then you’re actually inevitably saying “no” to something else, and you don’t want to say “no” to your wellbeing. 

Also, saying “no” doesn’t automatically mean you’re being a jerk. In-fact, we often overestimate the consequences of saying no. I remember one time one of my friends asked if I could help revise an essay she was working on by the end of the day but I was particularly busy, and to be honest, I knew my mental capacity was too drained to do a good job. So I told her “no” in this long apologetic text, expecting her to think I was some work-a-holic friend who would never be there for her again. Her response? “That’s cool I got my sister to review it. Want to get some sushi?”

When To Say “No”

Of course, knowing that saying “no,” is okay is one thing, but how do you know that “no is the right answer?

One of the best ways to know when to say no is admittedly cliche – trust your gut. Your brain may be telling you a bunch of stories and playing out scenes in your head, but if you’re already feeling that sense of dread or sickness in your gut about it, then trust your instincts.

Sometimes feelings aren’t so black and white and that’s when it’s perfectly acceptable to respond with something like, “I need to give it some thought.” You don’t have to respond right away all the time, even if the person asking is your boss. Good leaders respect their team’s time and values someone who prioritizes delivering on their work effectively and thoughtfully over doing so quickly.

Some other questions you can ask yourself when you’re wrestling with whether to take on a new project are:

  • What are the opportunities that saying “yes” will offer? 
  • Does this project align with your personal and professional goals?
  • What are the opportunities that saying “no” will offer?
  • Why am I being asked to do this in the first place?

How to Say “No” With Less Anxiety and More Grace

So you’ve decided to say “no” – now what? Especially if you’re saying no to a boss or someone in leadership, it can be really stressful to write or say what you mean while still coming off as a team player. 

 Here are some ways to accomplish saying no with less anxiety and more grace:

1. Offer your answer with gratitude and context:

If someone asked you to do something, oftentimes it means they trust you to get the job done right. It’s important to express gratitude first by thanking them for considering you. And if you’re like me, avoid the urge to be overly apologetic. After all, your time and your expertise are valuable. ‘

It’s also important to offer context as to why you’re saying no. That context does not have to be hyper-detailed, in-fact it can be as simple as, “For personal reasons…” or “Due to my lack of bandwidth at the moment…” or something along those lines.

2. Offer an alternative:

One of the most considerate things you can do when setting boundaries is to help out the person who needs help by pointing them to other resources or people who could do the job. This makes you out to be a problem solver. Another alternative could be offering to complete it at a later date, when you may have more time or energy.

What if they don’t accept my answer?

If the person you’re interacting with won’t take no for an answer, then one of the best ways to silence them is to frame your “no” in the best interest of the asker by saying something along the lines of: “If I took this obligation I would not be able to support you 100%.”  

And trust me, I know sticking to your gut is easier said than done. But one must be in control of one’s time, and that takes confidence and the empowering feeling of knowing your worth.

“If you don't prioritize your life somebody else will.”

How To Deal with Guilt

Sometimes saying “no,” isn’t so empowering though. We’re often left with feelings of guilt or fear. The key to dealing with guilt is practicing a little self compassion. After all, we said no for a reason, and that’s to help ourselves in some way. Perhaps you said no because you didn’t have the time for the project and now you’re scared you aren’t going to get that promotion. But you definitely won’t get that promotion if you’re underdelivering since you’ve overloaded your plate. Perhaps you said no to working unpaid hours over the weekend and are feeling guilty as appearing like not a team player. But really what you’ve done is set healthy boundaries that will prevent people from pushing you even further.

And ​​don’t be discouraged if you can’t change your behaivor quickly. While the idea of saying no and letting go may be simple, carrying it out in real life is much tricker. The important thing to remember is that by saying no, you’re actually saying yes. If you’re feeling overbooked, one of the most simple things we can do is cut down on meetings. Consider dropping just ONE weekly meeting, even for just a few weeks, and weigh out the benefits and consequences of doing so. Chances are, saying no may be more empowering than you thought. 

“If you continue to feel responsible for how others react to your ‘no,’ however, you are agreeing to be a part of an unhealthy relationship that is based in distorted concepts of responsibility. Your only hope for a healthy relationship is to continue to work toward breaking your own patterns of unhealthy responsibility.”

Saying no isn’t selfish, it’s an act of self care

By saying no to that meeting and saying yes to your work priorities, wellness, reflection time, etc. you’re giving yourself opportunities to be more creative and innovative. Not only that, but by saying no and considering the reactions, you can quickly identify and cut toxic people in your life who are not considerate of your time or expertise. After all, setting boundaries is an EMPOWERING thing, and it all stays with a two letter word.

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