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Learn How to Say No

"Freedom isn't the ability to say yes. It's the ability to say no."

Why can it be so hard to say “no?” It’s common! Most of us at some point in our lives have struggled with saying the word “no.” Whether it was accepting an invitation to attend an event, meeting a former colleague who was looking for a job, or taking on an additional project you didn’t have time for, saying yes seemed the easier response at the time. But, then this can result in less than optimal outcomes for all sides.

Why can it sometimes be more difficult to say no?

Saying no may not come easily to you, but it is one of the most important actions you can take. And, you can learn how to say no. In a Forbes Business article, Jonathan Becher (2015), offered several quotes from some well-known and successful folks who consider the ability to say no an important part of a successful life strategy:

  • “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Warren Buffet
  • “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’” Tom Friel, former CEO of Heidrick & Struggest
  • “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the UK
  • “Focusing is about saying no.” Steve Jobs

Let’s delve into why saying no seems difficult, what some of the consequences are for saying yes when you mean no and ghosting, and why learning to say no is important.

Reasons Why We Don’t Say No

The inability to say no may stem from an eagerness to please. Often, we take comfort in being the “helpful” one–whether it’s at work, with friends, or in other relationships. On some level, we are bolstered by the appearance of being a person who is asked to do things for others.

We are somewhat flattered when asked to make an introduction to someone in our network, for instance. We feel important when asked to take on another project at work. Many times we say yes and feel stressed at that very moment because we know we aren’t going to be able to fulfill the request, usually due to lack of time or interest. However, when we commit to something we can’t go forward with, it actually contributes to wasted time, energy, and anxiety.

Here are more few reasons why we find it difficult to say no.

The Need to be Liked

Our interactions with people rely on reciprocity for the most part. So, when we don’t oblige social requests, it weakens our bonds with people. Dr. Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University, told the Wall Street Journal (2014) that, “Saying no feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness.”

The Fear of Missing Opportunities

The fear of missing out (FOMO) leads to us saying yes when we really should say no. Trusting your choices and thinking through them in the present can tell you that you can’t fulfill an obligation and that you shouldn’t commit.

The Fear of Conflict

We fear conflict that may arise when we say no. Therefore, we may say yes when we are afraid that saying no will put us into a conflict with the person doing the asking. Maybe the person is a boss, a supervisor, a colleague, a friend, or an acquaintance who is requesting something from us. Not wanting to disappoint and potentially cause a conflict, you initially acquiesce to the request.

Consequences of Ghosting

A common way of getting out of a former commitment to someone, instead of saying no, is ghosting them. Ghosting is a fairly recent colloquial term related to ultimately engaging in noncommunication to end a situation. Wikipedia defines ghosting behavior as “the practice of ending all communication and contact with another person without any apparent warning or justification….”

For example, let’s say you have been asked by a colleague, John, to make an introduction for someone who needs your network for a specific area of expertise. John says he has a friend who has a need to talk to someone in the public relations business and since you have a network that includes such people in PR, can you introduce his friend to one or more of your contacts. You tell John you will be happy to do so and he then relays that to his friend. But, you simply don’t have time to fulfill your commitment. So, you ghost the request as well as John in an attempt to avoid the potential conflict that going back and reneging may entail. It sounds like, and is, a lack of courage and inappropriate business etiquette to ghost in this situation. But, many people do it rather than having what they perceive as a potentially awkward conversation to say no.

Our research also shows that ghosting during the interviewing process, both by employees and employers, is on the rise (“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Why Workplace Ghosting Is on the Rise,” Knowledge at Wharton, 1/31/2019.) Even when a person has put hours into preparing and interviewing with several managers, he/she can be ghosted, resulting in no closure to that process. No reasons are given for why they aren’t considered further. By the same token, more employers are experiencing an increasingly common reality of being ghosted by job applicants failing to show up for interviews. Unbelievably, even employees are ghosting their employers by just disappearing and never contacting the company again.

Ghosting has many negative consequences. Here are a few:

Loss of trust

When you ghost a situation, the people involved lose trust in you. They distrust your ability to be truthful, which can hurt you personally and in business. There is no question that an inability to say no can negatively affect your reputation.

Sign of weakness

When you should’ve said no in the beginning and then end up ghosting the situation, people will begin thinking you are weak. Initially, they may feel it was somehow their fault, but eventually, they realize that you were the weak one by not having the strength or courage to say no.

Showing disrespect

It is rude and disrespectful of others to ghost them. In this day of so much communication being done online instead of in person, it is easier to ghost. But, it is nonetheless, still disrespectful as it has always been to just be noncommunicative as to why you are going back on your word of commitment.

A lack of business and personal ethics

Ghosting a situation leaves those involved with the impression that you display a lack of character. Many people consider a person who has ghosted lacks social civility. Ethical values include honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility, integrity, kindness, and empathy. Just by saying no you will instill in others’ minds that you have these important traits.

Why Learning to Say No is Important

Learning to say no empowers you and maintains your relationships with others. Others ultimately respect you when you show that you have the courage to establish boundaries by saying no. By making intentional choices and saying no, you free up your time, energy, and attention for what feels meaningful to you.

Here are some of the benefits you get when you learn to say no.

  • You gain confidence in yourself and respect from others,
  • You take away some of your stress,
  • You prioritize how your time is spent,
  • You show conviction in your values, and
  • You show you embody the strength of your character

Learning How to Say No

Saying no upfront is more polite than agreeing to something without the intention of following through. It shows you respect the other person’s time and right to explore other options. If saying no doesn’t come easy to you, here is the good news: you can learn how. Here are some tips that can help you learn how to say no.

Get Clarity and Focus

Get clear about your priorities, resources, time, energy, and where your focus is or should be. This clarity will help you look at requests objectively and reply appropriately.

Have Conviction

Only say yes to things that you commit to that are within your capacity. This makes honoring your commitments and saying no to things that have less priority much easier.

Employ a Calm and Assured Technique

Engage in a calm but firm voice when you say no. Always give your full attention to the person making the request to avoid making them feel less-than and belittled.

Follow Through

Don’t vacillate from your choice due to fear of offending others, missing out on an opportunity, or their persistence. If you go back from your original response, you add negotiability in the mix, both in the present and also in the future. If you are convinced you made the right call and are steadfast as to the ‘why’ behind your no, it makes overcoming resistance easier.

Practice Saying No

If saying no causes you anxiety and a feeling of awkwardness, your brain will go back to the short-term comfort of saying yes. Practicing can help. Practice saying no so it becomes a skill and a part of your own professional and person self-care, creating a better leader within yourself.

Schedule a Consultation to Discuss Strategic Planning for Your Business

If you are interested in building and improving your business, we can help you. We can assist you in sorting out common occurrences such as why it may be difficult for you to say no, and how that inability may be harming you professionally. To schedule a consultation or learn more, contact us today.

“Ways to Say ‘No’ More Effectively” by Elizabeth Bernstein, The Wall Street Journal, 3/10/2014 “6 Quotes to Help You Understand Why It’s Important to Say No” by Jonathan Becher, Forbes Business, 8/12/2015 “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Why Workplace Ghosting Is on the Rise” by Peter Cappelli at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and Jay Finkelman at Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 1/31/2019

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