How to Say No

Why is it so hard? And how can I do it with a little grace?

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I was fortunate to be part of a beautiful event recently, Belinda Chang’s Virtual Boozy Brunch. I spoke in a segment on “how to say no” and offered a step-by-step process to help individuals who are burdened by a habit of always saying “yes,” even when an opportunity doesn’t align with their “budget.”

In theory, saying “no” seems simple, right? But it’s not. It’s something many of us struggle with at one time or another. So, why is it so hard to say “no,” but so easy to say, “yes?”

If we look at the science behind it, we say “yes” for three main reasons:

  1. We are people-pleasers. We want to please, and we don’t want to let anyone down.
  2. We’re fearful of appearing weak if we say “no.”
  3. We want out — of the moment or situation.

So, how can we empower ourselves to say “no?” Like most decision-making processes, we need a plan, a strategy. Before you immediately say “yes,” the first thing to do is stop and think.

Evaluate the ask

If you’re like me, I tend to want to please and “say, yes, yes, yes!” But we need to stop, take a deep breath, and think about the situation before responding. Think it through. It takes practice, but you can train yourself to pause, and give yourself time to process the “ask.”

Here are three questions to ask yourself the next time someone asks you for your time, money, or support.

  1. Can I do this?: Are you capable of doing what’s being asked? Do you have the talent, training, and expertise to do it?
  2. Should I do this? Is it appropriate for me to do this? Does this align with my values? Is it beneficial to me, to my career, to my brand? Do I have the desire to do this?
  3. Do I have time to do this? Be careful with this one right now; it’s tricky. In the middle of a global pandemic, to say, “I can’t do that, my plate is full,” could be offensive because everybody’s plate is full, even though it’s an honest response.

As you answer those questions, it’s also important to consider who’s asking? There may be some power dynamics at play that you should consider. For instance, is it your boss asking you to manage a project for her? Then the power dynamics command a “yes” — even though you may want to say no — unless there are unusual circumstances.

Here are two ways to help:

1. Set a commitment budget

It’s also important to consider how much you can comfortably do for someone else for free.

Remember, know your worth. Think about what it took to get where you are, and think about your comfort and any time commitment required.

I set a “free” event budget for the year. I would love to say “yes” to everything, but I know that I can only participate in X amount of events without putting significant strain on my resources and relationships. So, it helps a lot to know what is your capacity? That way, when asked to participate or help with something, you know what your budget allows.

Recently, I was asked to participate in a webinar for a local group for free. It was on a topic near and dear to me, but I had to say no. After walking through the questions mentioned earlier, I realized I was at my budget for the quarter and couldn’t do another free gig. It was tough, but I had to politely and respectfully decline.

2. There’s no harm in having a script

If you find yourself in a similar situation, like you’re asked to present a webinar for a nonprofit food pantry, for free. A good response to any “ask” should always be sincere, and I’m reluctant to offer a script or formula, but it can help you to communicate effectively:

  1. Start with a simple, genuine, positive statement.
  2. Mention something specific if appropriate, to show you’re engaged.
  3. Dish-up the “no,” with a very brief explanation. If you offer too much, you’ll end up doing it!
  4. Add a qualifier, if you like, “I’m sure you understand…”
  5. Close with sincere appreciation: thank them, be flattered.
  6. Consider leaving them with “mignardises,” a little extra something sweet.

Here’s how the response might play out:

“Insert name” thank you so much for asking me to participate. You know how much I value all the work you’re doing. It’s impressive how many young people you’re helping, and I love that you’re exposing the culinary arts to at-risk teens.

But I am so sorry, I have already completed my budget allotment for unpaid events this year.

Thank you for understanding, I’m sure you can’t commit to everything you’d like to do either.

And thank you for asking me; I’m flattered that you thought of me.

“You know how much I support you and the mission, and I’m always with you in spirit!”

Helpful tip: If it’s too uncomfortable for you to say “you’ve hit your unpaid budget,” insert, “I’m so sorry, but this just isn’t a good fit for me right now.”

Declining an ask is about etiquette, empathy, and empowerment, and it boils down to one thing, respect. Keep this strategy handy, so when people ask you to do something, you will stop, take a deep breath and consider. You won’t immediately say “yes” in an attempt to please, or from fear of appearing weak.

Instead, you can empower yourself to give a more thoughtful response when you need to say, “no,” and save the “yes” for an event or project that is a perfect fit.

Heidi Dulebohn writes for On The Couch: practical psychology for everyday life.

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Cracking Social Codes for Good| International Cultural Consultant |

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