The Art of Saying “NO”
Advice from 10 female trailblazers who have learned to set important boundaries for themselves and others
We’ve all been there: It’s been a long week and we’ve worked hard for ourselves, and for others. The days are filled with running after our dreams and doing everything in our power to make them a reality. We’re also trying to be a good friend, daughter, son, partner, or boss. We feel like we’ve given everything, but it’s still not enough. Oftentimes, we feel we have nothing left to give but still have a hard time uttering the simple response: No.
Sometimes, to be the best versions of ourselves saying no is essential, yet the most difficult, thing to do. Take some advice from these trailblazers who have learned to set this important boundary, which has ultimately led to productive and flourishing companies.
Julie Krohner, Founder of McDaniel Krohner Consulting
Daily “must”: Making local (mainly female) connections, writing for personal and professional purposes, daily meditation.
The learning process: Because I develop deep and empathic relationships with my clients, and do work that I truly care about, I don’t always draw the line where most consultants would. It’s less about struggling to say no, than respecting my own time and worth to know when I am over delivering.
Number one tip: Putting days between tasks helps clients prioritize them. When we get excited about what’s next and are building a research plan or strategy, clients want to do all of it. Because I know that all of it is not possible (timewise or budget-wise) but don’t want to quell their enthusiasm, I recap what we’ve outlined and set up a meeting two to three days later. Their homework is to write one sentence on how each objective would move them forward, and order them by importance. By the time day three arrives, the first three to five are all that’s on their list, and they feel it was their decision to nix the rest, not mine.
Jia Wertz, CEO and Founder of Studio 15
Daily “must”: 20 to 30 minutes of meditation.
The learning process: I struggle the most with saying no when family, friends or fellow entrepreneurs ask for my help. I always want to help them but with the limited time and resources I have running a startup, it also gets very difficult to finish my workload when I say yes frequently. I have learned over the past few years that saying yes when you don’t have the bandwidth is also not a good thing — both for you and for the person asking for your time. So I’ve been trying to say no more often. The more I say no when it’s necessary, the more time I have to say yes to the things that I need to prioritize.
Number one tip: Always offer what you can do for someone first, and explain why you are saying no. People appreciate the positivity of hearing what you can do first and most people are very understanding and will completely get why you have to say no once you explain.
Nathalie Molina Niño, CEO and Founder of BRAVA Investments
Daily “must”: Morning meditation and a dog-walk.
The learning process: Connecting people to great people who can help them; it takes a little time but can often be really impactful.
Number one tip: Meditate on what is most important and remind myself to prioritize where I am most needed.
Cecilia Pagkalinawan, CEO of AppLOUD
Daily “must”: Taking projects that allow me to have a balanced life and travel the world.
The learning process: I am now in my forties, and have gone through my twenties and thirties not saying no, overworking, not taking time off and making work priority over everything — and it made me miserable.
Number one tip: I actually convey that the no answer is the best for both parties. I give the other party options that allow them to see why no is the preferred response. Personally, I evaluate a few criteria before I say yes: 1) Do I like and respect this person and want to further my relationship with them? 2) What is the benefit to me and where I want my future to be? 3) Does the decision make me feel good inside (not just fatten my bank account)? When I project into the future that my saying yes could eventually do damage with my relationship with that person, or take valuable time away from my partner, son and stepdaughters, it becomes easier to say no.
Nicole Giordano, Founder of StartUp Fashion
Daily “must”: A morning routine with no phone and early writing when my brain is clearest.
The learning process: I get emails daily from aspiring designers looking for advice, mentorship, and guidance. I want to be able to sit down and respond in depth to every single one of them. I want to mentor every single one of them. But that’s not realistic. Though my empathy is a huge part the success of my business, it can also work against me at times like these.
Number one tip: One thing I do is remind myself of the reason why I launched my business. I think about the designers who have joined our membership community and are committed to working hard every day to follow their dreams and reach their goals. I have to focus my time and energy on them. If I say yes to helping everyone who emails me, I’m taking time away from those who have committed to reaching their goals. Another thing I do — because many of the requests for my time are similar (designers wanting advice) — I have crafted a script with a response that links to some helpful blog posts and resources. That way, though I can’t give them personalized attention, I am still providing them with an actionable response, and that’s important.
Emily Anne Epstein, Executive News Editor of Bustle
Daily “must”: Wake up and check the news, along with my commitments for the day.
The learning process: I like to fix things (and I’m good at it) so when it comes down to eating lunch or reviewing a story, I’ll often choose work over self-care. That’s not good for anyone though, because if I’m burnt out, I can’t help anyone. When I was younger I could work 15 hours a day for weeks, but I physically can’t anymore. I try to make decisions based on what can do the most good in the least amount of time now.
Number one tip: I love the phrase, “I have a commitment.” When I was younger, I thought I always had to tell people what I was doing and why it was more important than what they were asking for. Now I’ve learned most people don’t want to hear your excuses. Those four words are magic. No one questions them.
Jennifer Iannolo, CEO and Founder of The Concordia Project
Daily “must”: Review my game plan and create my strategy for the day — with a side of coffee.
The learning process: After burning out from an insane schedule, I’ve now become clear that my time belongs to no one else but me, and have developed discipline around that. To save my brain from clutter and overwhelm, I live and die by my calendar; so if something doesn’t exist there, it doesn’t exist. Because of that, I know exactly what windows I have to say yes to things, and I’m not worried that I’m forgetting something (or someone) important.
Number one tip: If I receive a mentorship or advice request, I will schedule a 15-minute power call when I have a calm window. I say no to in-person meetings, or anything beyond 25 minutes, if it’s a first conversation (everyone wants to meet for coffee, but that’s a huge time-killer). If there’s something to develop after that 15-minute conversation, I’ll meet. Also, I frame my no kindly, so the person understands it isn’t personal, it’s just not workable.
Daria Barkai, Operations and Business Development Manager of Werk
Daily “must”: Flexibility in my schedule so I can have mommy/daughter time.
The learning process: It’s harder to say yes and then feel pulled between doing work and entertaining my kids (and not ignoring them!). I’ve realized I’m a better mother and a better worker when I can dedicate myself 100 percent to one of these activities. I’m happy to work more after bedtime, but I am constantly retraining myself to detach from my phone/work during kid time and focus on them.
Number one tip: I always want to say “yes, let’s do a really fun activity, kids!” And also, “yes, I’m available for a conference call whenever you want!” So it’s about self-discipline. I have gotten used to letting things go and giving myself a break. We can only prioritize so many things, so, sometimes the house is messy, the work project gets pushed off a few hours or the kids don’t get to go to the splash park — and that’s all okay!
Jumoke Dada, Tech Consultant and Founder of Tech Women Network
Daily “must”: Morning prayer and devotion followed by a workout.
The learning process: Over the past year, I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the “takers” in my world. They are individuals who engage with me solely to make requests for my resources, my contacts, my time, or my talents yet offer nothing in return. I’m naturally a giver so I had to establish boundaries. I’ve learned to say no without any delay, apprehension, or guilt. However, there are still some times when I struggle with saying no, especially if the ask is to get involved with something that I care about but I know that I don’t have the bandwidth to be effective.
Number one tip: Provide alternative solutions. When appropriate, I donate money or I simply let the requestor know when I will be available to assist in the future. If the request is for my talent or a service, I make referrals to others that may have interest or immediate availability.
Adelyn Zhou, CMO of TOPBOTS
Daily “must”: I have three types of days: meeting days, work days, and travel days. On meeting days, I will have meetings lined up back to back either in person or virtually. On work days, I will be cranking in front of a computer and giving myself blocks of time to work. This gives me a rare moment of uninterrupted time to think. On travel days, I’m either out speaking at a conference, moderating a panel, or helping on a client site.
The learning process: I really want to be a resource and help everyone as so many people have helped me in the past. However, it’s become incredibly hard as I get countless requests from people to “pick my brain” or “get my advice” on topics ranging from “How do I get into artificial intelligence?” to “Can I introduce you to my friend who runs an AI company?” Now, I always want to make sure the introduction is mutually beneficial and usually always check with both parties before making introductions.
Number one tip: I have started blocking days where I take lots of meetings and other days for uninterrupted work. I use Calendly and an assistant to schedule these in blocks of time on my calendar. I have a recurring day of the week where I take all my meetings. The most productive people schedule their calendars not by the hour or half hour, but by the minute. And you have to if you’re balancing tons of different things.
Christy Johnson, CEO and Founder of Artemis Connection
Daily “must”: Break the day into “sprint” periods, then getting off my screen before bed so I can sleep better.
The learning process: When I was younger, someone told me to never say no to a wonderful opportunity, as it was unlikely to happen again. While that advice served me well in the beginning, I’m now at the point where it isn’t. There are so many opportunities and I find it hard to say no to a lot of them. The ones that are the hardest for me are anything that involves education; this is such a public good and a way to improve the world. I always want to help those focused on educating others. The other place is people wanting work advice. I’m so grateful to those who gave advice and created opportunities for me earlier in my career. I feel an obligation to pay that forward and help someone else.
Number one tip: Build a framework for evaluating opportunities that come at you: I built mine based on personal values like giving back and lifelong learning. This makes it so much easier to sift through opportunities quickly. Lack of time and a struggle to say no often comes when I don’t have clear priorities. Secondly, don’t take too much responsibility: the other person has to meet you halfway. Lastly, learn to say, “not right now” and then suggest the person reaches out in three to six months — most people won’t — if you keep thinking about it after saying, “not right now,” you know you are onto something.