Saying No with Grace

We are our own worst enemy. No truer statement can be made when it comes to managing our time and energy. When working with people who are overwhelmed I have discovered that many people take on accountabilities and tasks too easily. Before long, their capacity to deliver is stretched – and they are stressed. Here are some reminders on how to effectively say No:

1.      First, turn off your autopilot. Stop taking requests automatically. Between the request made and your response, pause. Learn to assess every request. Ask yourself, Does this belong to me? If you have been in one organization for a long time, you may be getting requests that are stale-dated. They no longer match up with what your current priorities are, but are carry-overs from previous ways of working. Let clients and colleagues know, respectfully, that your accountabilities have changed and you don’t do that anymore. Then ask, Can someone else do this better or faster? The first question is about accountability, the second is often about preference. Learn to let go those things you like to do, but should not.

2.      Affirm your right to have a healthy and balanced life. Often we don’t say no because we think we’ll have to explain or rationalize our refusal. Just say no. You have a right to take care of your schedule. Often when the requestor starts to grill you about your rationale, it is their attempt to make you feel guilty or rethink your stance. Maintain your personal privacy without being rude. Politely, pleasantly and firmly say no thanks.

3.      Take the time to be clear about what you want or need to be doing – at work and in your personal life. Can you list the three most important priorities for your work right now? This inner knowledge will allow  you to quickly sort what belongs to you and what doesn’t. It will allow you to be firm in your stance, your body language and your tone.  As soon as you feel that No is the correct response, say it. Don’t put it off with “I’ll think about it” or “maybe”…this raises false hopes and makes you look indecisive.

4.      Check your personality for traits that make it easy to take on too much, i.e. perfectionism or need to be in control.  Examine your reasons for always saying yes. Some people are motivated by affection (a desire to be liked) or by inclusion (a desire to be a part of something). You may be a person whose main driver is to serve others. What are you afraid will happen if you say No? Perhaps you don’t want to be identified as a slouch. Confront yourself with honesty and see if there isn’t something you’d like to change. 

5.      Practice saying no. It gets easier the more you do it. Try it with simple things, refusing a pamphlet at a store, or a request to participate in a phone survey. If you think you say yes mostly because you like to be of service, practice letting others serve you. Ask for help on an assignment. Let someone else carry the heavy box and open the door. 

6.      Recognize other people’s ploys to get you to say yes. They make  you feel guilty, make you feel incompetent or just refuse to hear you. Repeat your No several times calmly. Refuse to be swayed. Be empathetic to their cause. Remember that you can show empathy without taking on their work.

7.      Finally, start to say yes to those things you would like (or love) to do. Join an organization whose mandate thrills you. Take up a new sport or hobby. Fill your time with activities that spark  your passion, or just help you relax, and you’ll feel rested and energetic instead of sapped. And soon, you’ll feel better saying No to everything else.

 Jill Malleck is a Coach and Organization Development consultant whose company Epiphany at Work provides development solutions that accelerate positive change for individuals and work groups.

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