Learning to say no

As a performance strategist, I often work with clients who have difficulty maintaining a healthy and sustainable balance between their work and personal lives.

Whilst this can be for a number of reasons, the inability to say no is a big one. This typically translates into overpromising (and often under-delivering), being overloaded with work, and overcommitting (to tasks, people, meetings and so on). In fact, there are few things that can throw a person off track more than his or her inability to know when to say “no”. Otherwise, why is it that some people end up constantly burning the midnight oil whilst others appear to have a much healthier approach to work?

Training executives and teams to say “no” more often is not a concept many companies genuinely embrace, given the obvious conflict of interest. Of course, why would you encourage your people to push back on the work you want them to do?

Enhancing the Individual

It’s important to highlight the benefits of creating a culture of assertiveness, being able to say no and being able to manage expectations effectively. For the individual, he or she is likely to experience:

  • less stress;
  • better balance;
  • less resentment;
  • a greater sense of freedom; and
  • more control over his or her own time.

Being able to focus on fewer tasks also means these can be completed to a higher standard, since the individual will not be spreading himself or herself too thinly.

Organisational Gains

For an organisation, there are – perhaps surprisingly – significant reasons why it makes sense for people to push back from time to time. If your people are on top of and in control of their work, they will be happier and less overwhelmed. Studies show there is a clear link between being happy and being more productive in the workplace – and this extends to the ability to think creatively when given enough headspace.

Another powerful reason to encourage people to say “no” more deliberately comes down to the irony that doing less actually helps us to achieve more. Hearing a “no” helps leaders to think more critically about what they are asking their teams to do, and why. This means only focusing on value-add tasks and projects, and being ruthless about what people spend their precious time on. Rather than cascading more and more work down to team members, the existence of “no” forces leaders to be more strategic and thoughtful before placing requests.

With that in mind, here are three factors you need to consider if you struggle to say “no”. The secret lies in looking inwardly, at yourself, first and foremost.  Contemplate what is in your control because – trust me – a lot comes down to the way we personally think, act and react.

What causes you to say “yes” when you really wish you’d said “no”?

We all do it! We find ourselves saying “yes” to someone or something instinctively, rather than pacing ourselves and checking whether we have the capacity to take on more commitments. This extends to our personal lives too, when it comes to friends and family. With an inability to say no, we can end up overscheduling, double booking and constantly feeling rushed without any time for ourselves. Reasons for struggling to say “no” range from feeling guilty to wanting to be liked, from worrying about job security to not wanting to miss out.

The irony is that when we say “yes” to someone or something, we are essentially saying “no” to something else we could dedicate this chunk of time to. There is always an opportunity cost.

Who are you dealing with in your struggle to say no?

It’s crucial to reflect on the type of character you’re interacting with when faced with a situation where you end up conceding or agreeing to do something you’d rather not. Ask yourself what they are like, how they act, how they like to communicate…

Relationship dynamics, power balance and preferences all play a part. Having discussed the significance of personal traits with profiling expert Dave Pill, it’s fair to say that there is no one way to say “no” in an interaction. The characteristics, needs and wants of the person on the receiving end must be taken into account so you can artfully decline or push back.

On a more abstract level, perhaps you are your own worst enemy. Maybe you need to learn to say “no” to yourself. This is relevant for time drainers such as procrastination, distractions and excessive social media use. It can also apply to circumstances in which we put too much pressure on ourselves to do more and keep busy.

What alternatives are there to saying yes?

We often think that an all or nothing approach is required when asked to commit to a new project, task or meeting. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Compromise can go a long way, as can simply showing a willingness to help or be involved. Instead of a “yes” that fully commits you, consider what other responses could be offered when asked to do something. For example, this could mean proposing a caveat that you can take on a new task on the basis that something else will need to be deprioritised. Other options include agreeing to do something subject to an extended deadline, reduced scope, more resources, or additional support. What else could you do to avoid overcommitting?


Answering the above three questions will give you a much greater understanding of yourself, others and how you can use this information to regain control of your time. Remember, learning to say “no” tactfully and skilfully doesn’t just benefit our working lives. The inability to master this tends to impact the way we live our personal lives too, so it pays to get on top of this sooner rather than later. Without a plan of action, we willingly forfeit control of our time and wellbeing.

To dive deeper into your own challenges around saying “no”, it is worth exploring the upcoming Art of Saying No programme starting in June. Enrolment is now open for this six-week modular programme which also includes four one-to-one coaching sessions over a three month period, an individualised personality profile report, a weekly webinar addressing the Art of Saying No, and all worksheets and resources to help you be at your best. For more information, contact [email protected].

Abigail Ireland featuredAbout the author

Abigail helps companies, executives and individuals enhance their performance and personal productivity.

She has developed a unique 360 degree approach that combines the world of business and wellness to boost concentration, focus, energy and performance both in work and in life.

To find out more about Abigail’s work visit her website www.abigailireland.com

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