How To Say No And Still Get Ahead (Without Guilt)

By Paula Davis-Laack

Business People Waiting Nervously
Business People Waiting Nervously

I hate saying no. Just the thought of having to say no triggers this all to familiar three-phase process:

PHASE 1: I get a pit in my stomach.

PHASE 2: My inner critic appears with a series of thoughts that go something like this: “If I say no, they’ll never hire me again; they won’t like me; they’ll tell other people I’m awful,” and on and on and on.

PHASE 3: I wind up feeling either guilty or angry – mad at myself for saying yes to something I really don’t want to do, or guilty for thinking I’ve let someone down if I say no.

What’s more, as someone who educates and trains busy people how not to burn out, people (especially women) tell me that they fear saying no will negatively impact their career. Their fear is well founded. Research shows that work-related altruism is less optional for women — when a woman says no to a colleague, she often receives less favorable reviews. As a result, women find themselves in this Catch-22: “I can’t say no for fear of losing my job (or being perceived as unhelpful), but if I say yes to everything, I’m creating an unsustainable pace that may lead to burnout.”

In an effort to reform my people-pleasing ways and to more effectively coach others, I’ve been trying to implement some of these tips from Dr. Adam Grant. Here is his list of 6 ways to say no without hurting your image:

1. The Deferral: “I’m swamped right now, but feel free to follow up.” With this strategy, you don’t close the door, but you let the person know you can’t respond at this time. If you truly want to help fulfill the person’s request, make sure to include a specific date or time for them to reconnect.

2. The Referral: “I’m not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something else.” You can be of service by connecting the person with someone else or other helpful resources.

3. The Introduction: “This isn’t in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who might be helpful.” According to Grant, “introductions are the gift we love to receive but forget to give.”

4. The Triage: “Meet my colleague, who will set up a time to chat.” Delegate the initial conversation to a trusted colleague who can than help you evaluate next steps.

5. The Batch: “Others have posed the same question, so let’s chat together.” You can facilitate the development of a community around a shared or common interest.

6. The Relational Account: “If I helped you, I’d be letting others down.” Grant describes this as “referencing your commitment to other people when declining the focal person.”

Here are five additional tips I have collected and created to help you get better at saying no:

Get clear on your values. I am passionate about helping women avoid burning out at work. As a result, it’s easy for me to yes to a pro bono speaking opportunity that supports women leaders and makes it easier for me to say no to other requests that don’t resonate the same way.

Practice. If there is an important “no” looming in your future, particularly if it relates to work, practice the conversation with a friend. Having another person role play an unsympathetic boss can get you ready for the real thing.

Start by saying no to something small.   When you’re asked for your phone number, driver’s license number, email, or the name of your first born by any store clerk, just say no. Saying no to small requests from strangers helps to build your confidence for saying no to larger requests.

Learn how to process the anxiety and guilt. Anxiety and guilt don’t feel good, but they are emotions often associated with saying “no.” The emotion of anxiety appears when you are uncertain about how a situation will turn out, and guilt arises when you feel like you’ve let yourself or someone else down. Acknowledge the emotion you feel, label it, take a deep breath, and move on.

Reframe the meaning of “no.” It’s tempting to get stuck thinking about all of the negative connotations associated with saying no, but follow Adam Grant’s advice here: “Saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters most.”

It’s important to manage your high-achieving ways so that you don’t burn out. In order to develop a more sustainable pace and home and at work, you need to get good at saying no.


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