Four simple ways to saying “no” more

Posted March 21, 2022

Are you someone who struggles to say no to things? The world of “yes” is a comfortable one. When we say “yes” versus saying no, we seem agreeable, positive and enthusiastic.

The word itself is often even associated with a positive feeling and even different body posture to that of a “no”.

Try it out for yourself: Look around the room right now and say the word “yes” out loud to everything you see, hear, taste, touch and smell.

Now try saying “no” to everything.

What do you notice about the way in which you said the two words and how that made you feel?

“Yes” can seduce us for this very reason.

The problem is, as leaders, how far do we get when we say “yes” to everything?

The positive, agreeable and enthusiastic person we were when we said “yes” to that additional task, piece of work or request can then transform into a negative, resentful and overwhelmed wreck.

“Why did I say I would do that?”

You realise that your workload is already high.

You realise that the extra thing you have taken on is actually not so much in your interests, but really more about helping someone else.

You then feel resentful that you’re doing the extra thing you agreed to do.

Why do I say yes all the time?

There is a myriad of reasons why we struggle to say no to people’s requests.

For one, we have relatively stable personality traits which influence this.

These are patterns of thinking and behaviour that get transmitted through genes from our parents (and their parents, and their parents, etc).

For example, people who are high in trait agreeableness have a tendency to want to avoid social disharmony and often put others’ needs ahead of their own so as not to “rock the boat”.

Agreeableness is helpful in some circumstances due to the co-operative behaviour that emerges (and co-operation is important for social cohesion and team working).

Agreeableness can also be related to empathy, which is well known to be a crucial skill for developing positive relationships with patients and enhancing clinical outcomes. So, it’s good in the right dose.

However, constant agreeable behaviour is actually counterproductive due to the negative effects it has in the longer term.

What happens when you put everyone else’s ideas first, such that your great ideas don’t ever get realised and the team continue doing something inefficiently?

How many innovative projects that could enhance patient well-being get sidelined due to agreeing with others and not making space for your ingenuity and flair?

Cultural and environmental factors play a significant role too.

Gender expectations and power differentials between men and women are a force that must be recognised.

As an educated, white, middle-class male from Britain, I have, over time, begun to recognise more and more how my voice is heard and how different work contexts appear to make it easier for me to decline things.

Because of the implicit respect that is often preferentially afforded to males, I suspect that I experience less of the self-doubt and worry about boundaries, declining requests, coming across as “unhelpful”, negotiating, or worrying what people will think of me if I go back on something I said.

Having said that, this is not an exclusively female problem. We can all struggle with this and I do too at times.

For me, it is driven by a self-sacrificing schema.

A schema is a cognitive framework our minds develop based on our life experiences that essentially lead to short-cuts with which we interpret the world. They contain beliefs that guide our behaviour, for better or worse.

Self-sacrifice schemas lead us to think and believe that others’ needs are more important than ours, create a sense of guilt for saying “no”, lead us to drop everything if someone asks us to do something and to not express our own feelings or needs.

If you are high in trait agreeableness, and you had an upbringing that favoured the development of self-sacrificing beliefs and behaviours, and you are female in a setting in which gender stereotypes operate to steer you into feeling like it would be frowned upon to say “no”, then it is quite understandable that this is something you struggle with.

With all of these influences laid out, let’s not get caught up in thinking that there’s nothing we can do about it.

Ways to start saying “no”

Here are some techniques you can start using immediately to help you.

1. Communication skills: Fewer words produce a stronger message.

When we have been asked to do something and we want to say “no”, we have a tendency to try and explain ourselves and give a long list of reasons for why this thing can’t be done instead of just saying no.

Don’t fall into the explaining trap.

Consider these two examples:

a) I’d love to do that project but the thing is I am already involved in this other thing and I’ve been going once per week to these meetings as well as doing my other clinical duties, so you see, I’m pretty busy, and also I’ve been supervising that student which has taken up quite a lot of time.

b) I’m flattered you would think of me for this project. I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth at the moment to do a good job so I will have to decline.

What do you notice about the answer, b?

If we think about what the message is we want to communicate first, we can then be selective about which words we use to convey it.

The more explanations we give, you are serving up the other party nicely described problems which they can offer to solve for you. Then they’ll give you the project anyway.

If you have a tendency to please and say yes, this will almost always end up with you being in a position of net loss of time.

So, avoid the explanation trap (unless of course, you are asked specifically what is on your plate preventing you from doing the task).

You want to help, and deep down you know that if you do, it will be you who suffers because it will likely mean that to do it to the standard you want you will have to sacrifice probably some of your own personal time.

2. If you can’t do what is being asked, provide alternatives.

I’ve got a secret.

Saying “no” rarely happens. In fact, “no” should often be avoided. It can sound uncooperative and a little blunt.

We just need to readjust how we think about the language that is used to convey a negative.

Let’s say your manager asks you to do X piece of work, or a colleague or student ask you for something.

Your day, and maybe your week, is completely full.

You want to help, and deep down you know that if you do, it will be you who suffers. This is because it will likely mean that to do it to the standard you want you will have to sacrifice some of your own personal time. Alternatively, it will create stress in your week because more things have to be done in shorter time.

The problem is, the word “no” sounds a little ferocious. And without other options, it feels like you are cornered.

But the other option is to simply provide alternatives.

For example:

“I can see that getting this done is important. I could take it on, however, I want you to know that I would not be able to do it to a high standard with the time I have over the next day.

If you are okay with me doing [insert here what is realistic] then that’s fine, alternatively, I wonder if it could wait until [insert realistic timeframe] or it could be completed by someone else?”

Imagine yourself hearing this response. How would you feel?

The person has not said no, however, they have set very clear parameters and provided you with solutions, rather than a cold, abrasive brick wall of “no”.

3. Problem solving.

Following on from the above, when saying “no” to something, it is helpful and effective to then focus on what can be done instead.

Here are a few examples of questions that can be posed, after you have stated in clear terms that you cannot take something on:

“Who else in the team has the skills to perform this task to the standard we would want?”

“How could we train someone else to be able to do this?”

“This is clearly something that needs to get done. What other ways could we solve this problem?”

When we focus on these types of problem-solving questions, it is important to use the power of silence.

If we ask a solution-focused question, what seemed like that vast canyon between you and the other people will be filled with constructive answers, if you give it time.

Be willing to sit with the brief discomfort whilst this unfolds.

I used to do this in meetings where a new task had emerged from the discussion and I felt my inner helper wanting to jump in and say “I’ll do it”.

It felt like I was being asked to do the task, which was not the case.

I noticed this thought and avoided the urge to say something as I knew deep down someone else would be more appropriate to do the job.

I asked the team, “who would be the best person to manage this?”

With a short discussion between team members, someone far more suitable than me emerged due to their availability and likely contact with the patient we were discussing.

4. RenegotiatingSaying “no” when things change.

How many times have you been in a situation in which you have said you would do something and for whatever reason, you later realise that you cannot perform the task, duty or responsibility anymore due to other things that have come up?

I’m pretty sure everyone would have had this experience in life.

The reason is that things change.

We make decisions based on the data and information we have at the time, and we humans are terrible at factoring in what kind of future events may impact our ability to perform on something in the now.

So, what do we do when we need to go back on something?

That dreaded feeling of having to have a conversation with a colleague, supervisee or trainee, your manager, a patient or client, whoever, about why you now cannot fulfil what you originally said.

The important thing to remember is that this happens to everyone.

With new information, needs change.

Give yourself permission to renegotiate if saying no is not an option for you.

Be open about things.

Commit to learning from the mistake, if one was made.

Then, decide on that clear, solution-focused message you want to express.

An example of this from my clinical work years ago was when I was writing complex intervention plans for people with brain injuries.

I can remember a time when things changed from when I made my initial treatment plan; the client’s needs changed and all of a sudden a renegotiation in the nature of the work I was doing had to occur.

A difficult, yet productive conversation ensued, which sounded something like this:

“I appreciate that at the time last year I had recommended X. Things were different then and things have changed, and what I realise is Y. I am unable to do X as things stand, however, these are our options…”

I felt embarrassed, annoyed with myself and a variety of other things.

However, after having this conversation I would say it felt darn good to me to have been open and I am almost certain it enhanced my relationship, rather than fractured it, due to the honesty.

Summing up

Being an effective leader involves consciously taking on tasks and projects that are within our capability and capacity.

Whilst it can be tempting to take on more, to please others, to appear co-operative, the long-term impact of this is one in which burnout is inevitable and we never get to see through the projects that matter most to us.

Moreover, what kind of leader can we be when we have little time to think, process, strategise and reflect? If we have no time for self-care, how can we effectively care for others?

So, could you do with a little more “no” in your life?


Let me help you with boundaries

If you’re feeling stressed and struggle to say no to things, then you might benefit from coaching.

In my 1:1 Compassionate Leader program I help people like you overcome inner conflicts and identify where you’re putting pressure on yourself.

We’ll learn tools to be kinder to yourself, create healthy boundaries and flourish in your role. Book in a free call HERE to meet me and see how I can help.

Article written by Nathan Illman, Founder of Nurse Wellbeing Mission. Nathan loves working with nurses and midwives to help them find inner peace and vitality in their work.

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