Have you ever stopped to realize that two of the simplest and most common words we use shape the direction of our lives and how we navigate our work and personal worlds? Those words are “yes” and “no”. What we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to define who we are, to ourselves and to others. They determine how we use our time and energies. They determine what is on our plate at any given point in time. For each of us, a “yes” communicates that this is a me thing – something that I am for and willing to commit myself to – while a “no” indicates the opposite.
It is challenging for many of us who are inclined to be helpful, social, and respectful to say “no” when asked to do something, especially if we can. We may even jump in to volunteer before considering the degree to which the commitment is consistent with our priorities. But we aren’t serving well when saying “yes” dilutes our impact, distracts our focus, or lowers the quality of our work. When we are unable, or unwilling, to say “no” we, in fact, sacrifice the opportunity to say “yes” to the things that are most important to us because we squandered our “yeses” in half-hearted commitments to our “no’s”. In that sense, the practice of setting limits by saying “no” empowers us to create, support, and pursue our genuine priorities, while the failure to do so allows others to control our calendar, to make their priorities ours, to delay pursuit of important but not urgent projects, and to feel like life is living us rather than the other way around. In the place of empowerment, creativity, and personal accomplishment it leaves a trail of powerlessness, dissatisfaction, and frustration.
So how do we get better at letting our “yes” be yes, and our “no” be no as a leader, a friend, or a colleague?
- Before saying “yes” to something, get sufficient clarity about what you would be committing to, including any associated deadlines. And ask yourself what it would mean to be fully committed to it. How will you effectively allocate the time, energy, resources, and focus that this commitment would require? What might you need to let go of (say “no” to) in order to commit to this?
- If your response is to be a “no”, explain the reasons or existing commitments that factor into your decision. Be kind and understanding of the other’s investment in the task or project to help them recognize that your “no” is not a judgment of them or their choices. Let your “no” be about your priorities, not about the worthiness of the ask. A “no” does not have to be defensive or harsh, but it must be firm and clear.
- If you still find it incredibly difficult to say “no”, you may need to do some self-exploration around your felt need to please others….just sayin’.