How to Say No With Grace, Not Guilt

So You can Say Yes to Your Best Life.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” ~ Warren Buffet

The Yes Epidemic

A few years ago, after yet another one of my clients was experiencing troubling physical side-effects of extreme overwork: in her case, high stress, weight gain, and an eye-twitch. I soon noticed that all my clients shared two things in common. They were saying ‘yes’ beyond their capacity to deliver on their yesses, and secondly, they were terrible at saying no.

When I was a kid in the ‘70’s a toy was introduced called Stretch Armstrong. It was impossible to pull this guy apart (without going to extreme measures involving sharp tools). Unlike Stretch, my clients (and often their relationships) were breaking. While they were accomplishing a great deal at work, they were approaching a breaking point. Two amazing people ended up in the hospital, another in divorce with his kids refusing to speak with him, and others experienced high stress and high guilt from not enough time with friends and family.

If you want to thrive and live a truly brilliant life — one with fulfilling work, relationships, and great health — you must learn to say no with grace, not guilt, and say yes to to the things that would most feed their souls and help them achieve a truly brilliant life.

Ignoring Our Limits

Our nervous system was not built for the always-on world we find ourselves in. You simply do not have the physical capacity to deal with all the information, requests, and decisions you face on any given day. So we feel over-committed, fried, and ‘super-busy,’ yet lacking a deep sense of real meaning and accomplishment at the end of each day.

I have built my life and my work about this fundamental belief:

We have infinite potential and limited capacity.

We’re all constrained by time: we have 24 hours in day — a third of which are needed for sleep — and a limited and unknown amount of days to live.

We are constrained by bodies that need constant fuel, rest, and renewal.

When we defy these realities and extend beyond our capacity, we break in myriad ways (obesity, auto-immune disorders, injuries).

So, if our vulnerability is so obvious yet our capacity for achievement so great, why do we live our lives as though the inverse was true: that we have infinite capacity and limited potential?

Why, in other words, do we live small, stressed-out existences that too often end in regret?

Our environment has something to do it. But there’s a bigger force causing us to over-commit and over-schedule ourselves.

Blame it On Your Brain

Your brain’s sole goal is to keep you safe: and it does that by moving you away from pain and toward pleasure.

There are three ‘pains’ that cause us to over-commit and say yes to the wrong things. These ‘brain pains’ have us avoid:

1) Social pain — the sense of being left out (also known as fomo — fear of missing out)

2) Status pain — the sense that others see us as less capable, and less successful than others (or the standard we’ve set for ourselves)

3) Prioritization pain — No task saps the brain like prioritizing your day. The act is strategically difficult and filled with mental and emotional land mines: Whom will we disappoint? What will be left undone? What painful task (that we’ve been avoiding) will we need to actually commit to?

Just knowing that our brain is driving us to over-commit and under-prioritize can help us be more self-aware and overcome these tendencies. But we also need some tools and crutches to help us intentionally choose new behaviors.

In my talks and my upcoming book Work-Life Brilliance: Tools to Break Stress and Create the Life and Health You Crave, I teach a simple six-step process for declining requests with clarity (and without actually saying the word ‘no’) in ways that build your reputation and enhance your results.

Step 1: Pause before you speak.

Simply take a deep breath before you say anything. Many of us are in the habit of giving a knee-jerk yes, and then regretting it later. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end, where someone said yes to your request and then failed to deliver, you know that a quick no is better than a slow no every time.

“A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Step 2: Decline with clarity.

It’s tempting to water-down our ‘no,’ but doing so can result in miscommunication about expectations…and eventually damage your reputation and relationship. You can be clear without saying the dreaded word no. Here are some examples of clear declines:

  • “I’m not available”
  • “I’m not able”
  • “I wish I could but I’m already committed”
  • “I’d love to be able to do that for you but I just can’t”

Step 3: Share a credible reason.

You’re likely to have a number of reasons to decline. Some may include:

  • You don’t have time
  • You’ll be out town
  • You don’t feel like it
  • You’d rather do taxes than any favor for this person
  • The last time you watched their dog, he peed on your new couch

While these may be true, they will not help you improve your relationship and reputation.

  • My team is down two people and we are already working nights and weekends.
  • I have another commitment at the same time that I can’t move.
  • I’ll be on vacation.
  • This isn’t my area of expertise and I’m afraid that I’d deliver you a sub-par product.

Share an honest explanation that you think is most credible to them.

For example, if you can’t make a meeting because you have to take your sick dog to the vet, choose how much detail you share depending on whether the recipient is a dog lover. If they aren’t, or you don’t know, you could simply say, “I have a personal commitment,” or “I have to go to the doctor.” Both are true, but less specific.

Step 4: Make an offer.

Only make an offer if you have one and if it serves both people’s needs. DO NOT make an offer simply to make yourself feel better. Do that, and you’re likely to end up over-committing.

Your offer could sound like:

  • “I know of a good resource, would you like her information?”
  • “Would you like me to ask a few people if they’re available?”

Step 5: Express gratitude.

This step can go at the beginning or end. Only express thanks if you genuinely feel it. If you’re resentful that you were asked, skip this step. People can smell inauthenticity.

Step 6: Drop the guilt.

Guilt is good for one thing: to signal that we’ve done something wrong and need to make amends. Most of us feel guilt habitually, even when we’ve done nothing wrong.

When you feel guilt, ask yourself, “Have I harmed someone or acted in conflict with my values?” If yes, apologize, and do better.

Client Success Story

I once worked with a client who was asked to chair a prestigious board in his industry. He really wanted to accept, but he knew that it would distract from the intense time he was investing in completing his PhD dissertation. He expressed genuine gratitude for their request, explained why he needed to decline, and offered to do it the following year. He completed his PhD and did take the reputation-enhancing position the following year.

Why Change Now?

You didn’t just wake up today and decide that you were over-committed. I’m guessing that you’ve known for a while that something needed to change. So, before you spend any precious time reading more, ask yourself, “Why change?” “Why now?”

Imagine for a moment that you don’t change: that you keep saying yes to others’ requests just as you’ve done up to this point. Then consider:

  • What will your life be like in six months if you don’t take more time for yourself and your priorities? In a year?
  • What will your emotional state be like?
  • What will your health be like? Will it be better or worse than it is now?
  • What will the quality of your most important relationships be like?
  • What about the quality of relationship with yourself?
“What are you pretending not to know?”
~Susan Scott

How to Decide What Deserves a Yes:

It’s much easier to say yes and no to the right things when you’re clear about your values and what’s most threatened in your life right now. In my live talks, book, and client work, I have people do a 6-minute Life Satisfaction Exercise that creates profound clarity. You’ll find it in my book, and on my online resources page, along with other tools to help you prioritize and create space in your life for what matters most.

More Than Work-Life Balance

Declining requests is about much more than time management or work-life balance; it’s about life management. People need you — not to say yes to everything thrown at you — but to be your most brilliant version of you.


Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on October 2, 2016.

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