Almost all leaders struggle to say no, especially now. In our BOLD Leadership program for women, participants frequently ask how to say no, ironic given how short, simple and global the word actually is. It is one of the biggest obstacles creating overwhelm, exhaustion and inability to “be the best version of myself.”
You don’t need to learn how to say No,
you need to discover what prevents you from feeling like you can.
Why We Don’t Say No
How we feel and our fear of how others will perceive us is at the core of what keeps us saying yes.
In BOLD cohorts, we focus on Making and Receiving BOLD Requests in our “D-Dare to Share What We Want & Need” session. We hear participants disclosing their genuine thoughts and feelings they rarely admit outside of the safe space in the cohort, such as the ones below:
If I say no, I WILL FEEL:
- I’m letting others down
- Guilty, ashamed
- I don’t deserve to say no because ____ (fill-in-the-blank: I haven’t been here long enough, proven myself, learned enough, others are also overwhelmed, etc.)
- I’m not good enough
If I say no, THEY WILL THINK:
- I’m not a team player
- I don’t know what I am doing
- I can’t handle it
- I am not pulling my weight
- I’m not trustworthy
If I say no, THEY WILL:
- Stop asking
- Ask others, replace me
- Not promote me
- Lose trust in me
- Forget about me
Ultimately, the fear is some version of “If I say no, they’ll think I don’t deserve to be here and I’ll be fired or forgotten.” We protect our most basic instinct to survive.
The Negative Impact of Saying Yes
By defaulting to “yes” you will ironically never fulfill your desire to please, contribute or be an inspiring, trustworthy leader. Why? Think of the quality and reliability of your commitments, deliverables and relationships.
When leaders get honest, they realize they are in survival mode and are not giving or being their best, strategic and inspiring selves. They are negatively impacting their relationships through a lack of collaboration and availability. And they are often unreliable in the delivery or quality of commitments.
Don’t underestimate the personal impact: anxiety, overwhelm, resentment, unhappiness and exhaustion are consistently the top rated feelings leaders report before starting their BOLD leadership journey. Stories about costs include examples such as shoveling unhealthy food (if at all) because of no time for breaks; poor sleep; “mom guilt” about being snappy or distracted when they are around those they love the most.
Saying No is a key step to taking back your leadership and your life.
Your ‘YES’ Survival Button
Imagine you have a “yes” button implant and every time a request comes in, you automatically – and unconsciously – hit it. It goes something like this:
We need someone to prepare the deliverable for Friday’s meeting (Sure – I’ll do it!)
Do you have five minutes? (Yes, of course!)
Can you help me with something? (Absolutely! Happy to help!)
I want you to take point on this even though it’s not in your scope (No problem!)
Better a clean No than a dirty Yes.
Interrupting this cycle is the first step to saying No. We hear countless stories of leaders who start saying no and renegotiating, getting better results and increasing trust. We observe participants’ managers imploring them to ask for what they need and say no.
Start Here When the Request Flies In
When you say No to one thing, you are saying Yes to another.
BOLD leaders stop flying the metaphoric plane on autopilot and switch to manual.
They start by PAUSING. When the request is made, they STOP. The speed and pace at which most communication occurs is fast and frenetic. It’s easy to unconsciously say yes without even thinking about it.
They ensure they UNDERSTAND the request. Is it clear? Do they know the size and scope of the ask?
They TUNE IN to thoughts and feelings. “Itty Bitty Sh**ty Committee” voices might be yelling “Do it! They will never ask you again if you say no…they will think you’re incompetent….untrustworthy…unreliable…” and the list goes on. Thoughts and feelings reflect our deepest fears, based on our own self perceptions of unworthiness, fear or lack of being enough.
Physical sensations (palpitating heart, pain in chest, etc.) occur as the biggest source of immediate data of how you really feel, and they help you remember what you want and need. Do you feel immediate dread and overwhelm, or excitement and energy? These feelings can guide your next move.
Saying ‘Yes’ is NOT Your Only Option
Imagine you have three, not one option to respond:
- Yes is one option. Consider changing your language from “I have to, I should” to “I choose, I get to.” Even a small tweak in language reminds you that you are in full choice (even when you think you are not).
- No is another choice! Have you ever stressed about saying no and eventually did and the response was Ok, i’ll go ask someone else, or Ok, I get it, or Ok, that makes sense. When we personalize requests (what will they think of me?) we can’t objectively respond. When we depersonalize by listening to our “Guiding Voice” versus our “Vicious Voice”, we can make choices that align the business and ourselves. If no sounds harsh, consider substituting “not right now.”
- Renegotiation is your superpower. This is agreement plus the inclusion of your needs. Yes, I can do that by Friday, not Wednesday; or, Yes and if I do that, I’ll prioritize it over xyz; or, I can do that and will need a contractor for one week to make it happen.
BOLD leaders decline or renegotiate as much as they accept.
When you always say yes, you train people around you to not trust you or your ability to deliver. When you provide authentic responses, people know you will tell them the truth.
Two recent examples: the waiter who whispered not to order the calamari, which made me trust his recommendations on everything else (and resulted in a great meal!). Or when I asked a former client (who evolved from being a self-professed people pleaser to having bold boundaries) to mentor a new CEO. She excitedly responded that she was thankful for being considered, said no and then offered an invaluable connection that will prove, in the long run, to be far more valuable than the original request.
- What is the BIGGEST CONCERN I have about saying No?
- What is it COSTING ME PERSONALLY, in my relationships, life and leadership by overusing my Yes?
- What is ONE THING I COULD DECLINE OR RENEGOTIATE that would make a difference?
These questions apply to all leaders (regardless of role or gender) and to all teams (and families).
Please reach out and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,