Two letters. That’s all they are. Yet those two letters—n and o—when merged together, can seem virtually impossible to say.

Why is that? For many of us, resistance to combining those two letters is instinctual, perhaps even ingrained: We have been raised to be socially accommodating, to be seen by colleagues, family, and friends as caring and considerate. Most of us do not want to be thought of as unliked; the very notion that someone from our past or present may not like us can end up taking up much more brain space than we’d like it to.

It’s especially challenging, I think, for women, who are particularly expected to be thoughtful and willing to do whatever is asked of them. We’ve come so far in terms of gender stereotyping, but some qualities are still thought of as feminine, some as masculine. On the masculine end of the spectrum are assertiveness and confidence (and, presumably, the willingness to say no); on the feminine end are empathy and nurturing. When women in the news or in popular culture are portrayed as assertive, their “likeability” factor often becomes an issue. (Side note: One of my favorite instances of a female character saying no is Wilhelmina Slater, played by Vanessa Williams, on Ugly Betty. Actually, she’s so busy and focused on running her media empire that she drops the o and just says, “N”!)

But the thing is, we’re all bosses. If not of companies, then of ourselves. As such, we have to have boss qualities, including time management, prioritization of the most important tasks, and—you know where this is headed—the ability to say no and let go of the non-priorities. So often, we simply cannot do everything asked of us. When we try, we feel exhausted, and our efforts are not as strong as they would be if we were to pare down to the important items.

Here are some tips on uttering those two letters. You’ll find that once you start doing it, it’s really not that hard. And who knows, you might just feel empowered!

Determine What Is Essential

First, you have to know what to say no to. In the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit  of Less, Greg McKeown identifies Nonessentialists and Essentialists. Nonessentialists want to be “all things to all people,” and they say yes without thinking about it much. But nobody can be all things to all people, and they often end up feeling overwhelmed. Essentialists, on other hand, say, “I choose to” instead of “I have to.” They follow what McKeown calls the “disciplined pursuit of less,” which includes saying no to all but essential tasks. Because they have made conscientious choices about what to do, they can focus on the important work, do it well, and ultimately take control of their own path. (Essentialism is a really illuminating book, one I recommend. All the information in this paragraph is from page 8.)

To determine whether to say yes or no to a request, ask yourself:

 

  • Does this project matter to me?
  • Does this project fall within the purview of my long-term goals and objectives?
  • Does it meet my criteria for self-worth? (For instance, if the choice is to say yes or no to something you find demeaning, “no” is likely the best answer.)
  • Will I realistically have time for it, without sacrificing time for physical- and mental-health activities that are important to me?
  • Will saying yes mean sacrificing the quality of my prior commitments?

 

If you answer yes to the first four questions and no to the last, then consider accepting the assignment. But if you have concerns about cutting into sleep or personal time, seriously consider turning it down. Never sacrifice either the quality of your work or your personal health and satisfaction for a gig.

Try These Techniques for Saying No

If you decide to turn down a project, here are some ways you can do so gracefully. While you may have some thoughts of self-doubt at first, saying no will get easier with time.

Start small. Try saying no in low-stakes situations first, then working up from there. Saying no to the waiter trying to upsell you an appetizer is much easier than saying no to a client who wants you to do something you simply don’t have time for. Keep your response concise and clear, and don’t overthink excuses. If you’re invited to an event you have no interest in, don’t say that you have a doctor’s appointment then. Just express appreciation for the invitation, and decline.

Say “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” Professors Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt of Boston College and the University of Houston respectively conducted research into the “self-talk” we use when making decisions. They found that saying “I don’t” is more effective than “I can’t”—it is more persuasive and comes across as having greater conviction, based on rules that you have established for yourself.

Practice. As with most arenas of life, practice will make you better at saying no. Think about how you would react in an impromptu decision-making situation. You might even come up with a few stock phrases, such as, “My prior obligations prevent me from being able to accept” or, “No, thank you, those terms are not acceptable to me, but I would be willing to discuss the project if…”

Seek support. Readers of this blog know that I am a big advocate for accountability, which can take the form of accountability groups, partnerships, mentorships, or coaching. The concept of “having each other’s backs” applies just as significantly to asserting a choice. Talk the decision through with someone whose feedback you value. If you have already made the decision to say no but are anxious about saying it, seek out others who have made similar choices. Accountability groups are great for that: We have all struggled with yes/no uncertainty, and you will be able to talk to anyone in the group about that struggle, the decision, and, eventually, its outcome.