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Saying NO

Early in my career, my manager told me I was good at saying no.  This didn’t seem like a compliment to several-months-into-the-job me - was I about to get in trouble??  But, with many more years of corporate and life experience behind me now, I realize what a strength and compliment this was.

There will always be more we can do, more others would like from us, more more more.  The reality is every time we say yes to something, we are saying no to something else that we could use our limited time for.  We say no to leave space for a (different, better) yes.  This is especially problematic if we move our prioritization decisions out of our own hands into others' hands - whoever is asking us to do something.  Our time is our biggest asset and being in control of our choices around our time is critical for internal alignment and likely impact.   

So, how can we can strengthen our muscles in saying no to enable intentionality in our day to day?  

  • Be clear on what is a yes or a no.  Are you clear on the most important priorities for your company, your organization, your team, yourself?  If not, start here.  Questions you could ask yourself to help evaluate your priorities include:

    • What projects are most important for my team?  What projects align with company priorities?

    • Where can my function add the most unique value?

    • What work can help gain more buy-in for future impactful work?

    • What opportunities am I personally interested in getting to try?

    • Will this ask benefit my relationships or personal growth?

  • Gain context on the ask.  Sometimes, through learning more about the ask, you can gain more information on if it should be a yes or a no.  You should aim to understand what makes this project important and how your work will be used to help evaluate its priority.  Sometimes this can also collaboratively surface ideas to reduce or even eliminate the ask. Or, if the project is important, you will have more information to set up your work here in the most impactful way.

  • Provide transparency and context.  Helping others understand what else you are working on or what you are working on instead can help make the no feel more understandable and collaborative.  It can also help teach others what types of asks are the best fit for you in the future.  This can be done ahead by sharing weekly priorities, as an example, or in the moment.  Having clear, predictable rules can also feel less personal for a no, whether set by your job function or your own personal decisions for what you will or won’t do.  For example, “I don’t attend meetings or events during 5-7 PM as I’m with my kids” or “Data engineering is responsible for creating dashboards, not Analytics.”

  • Offer options to collaboratively decide on the priority.  If a senior leader is asking you for something, it can feel hard to say a straight-out no.  But, it can still be an opportunity for a joint decision.  “Great, I can work on X.  I will need to deprioritize A, B, or C - what feels right to you?” can be an invitation to explore what the most important yeses are collaboratively.

  • Find a way to shrink it.  Oftentimes there is ground between yes and no.  People don’t always realize what is involved with an ask.  If there’s some value in the ask has value, can you explore a way to make the ask smaller to the point that you can say yes to it?  This could include suggesting an alternative, faster approach for analysis, contributing to the school in a smaller volunteer role, or only supporting an ask in the areas you are most uniquely able to help.  Understanding the purpose of the ask can help you figure out if there are alternative, smaller approaches to meet the needs.

  • Find other words for saying no.  While “No.” is a complete sentence, there can be other ways to say no that may feel more comfortable for you personally.  As examples:

    • “I’m flatted by your ask, but I don’t have the bandwidth right now.”

    • “Wow, that sounds cool.  Unfortunately, I’m overcommitted at the moment.”

    • “I’m consumed with X right now.  Let’s check back after Y timeline.”

    • “I can’t do it, but person X might be interested.”

  • Grow your comfort zone of saying no.  Just like any skill, practice makes perfect and experience will grow your comfort.  Think of this as a learning exercise and experiment to “just try it out” for saying no.  What can you learn through the process of saying no here and how can you leverage that for future asks?

What’s one thing you can say no to this week to help protect your time for YOUR priorities, not others' priorities?

hand holding mug that says, "I can't even"


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