Why is it so hard to say no? Is it because we are people-pleasers? Many of us were taught to play nice when we were young—I certainly was. For this reason, we may feel like we don’t have permission to say no. Some of us find it hard to refuse because we are afraid that friends or colleagues will think poorly of us if we turn them down.
People-pleasing takes a heavy toll on us. If I’m feeling stretched and say yes when I really mean no, I either end up resenting the person who asked for my help or I resent myself because I should have declined. We need to set boundaries, but the line can be blurry. Below are some examples culled from my experience and insights from other women on when saying yes is appropriate and when it is best to say no.
Say yes when…
- It is an emergency and no one else is left at work to help out.
- Taking the assignment will give you heightened visibility with top management.
- You’ve said no several times recently, and you don’t want to lose an office ally.
- What’s being asked doesn’t require much of your time.
Say no when…
- You are overworked and one more commitment will totally overwhelm you.
- You’ve moved on to another job and a coworker from your former assignment is constantly asking for advice in the form of evening e-mails.
- You’re not that fond of the person asking for help, and you don’t want to go out of your way for him.
- You’ve been working late every night for a week and a half, and your family needs some quality time with you.
If it is unclear whether to say yes or no, write out the pluses and minuses of saying yes. Whichever column has more is the way to go.
Try creating your own personal list of when it’s best to say yes and when it’s best to say no.
Adapted from The Confidence Myth: Why Women Undervalue Their Skills, and How to Get Over It, by Helene Lerner, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
Saying no can be someone else’s yes
Think of turning something down as an opportunity for someone else to advance.
Be aware of when you put unrealistic demands on yourself
Treat yourself with kindness and draw the line.
Negotiate what you need
Being clear on what your priorities are and what trade-offs you’re willing to make can help you speak up even when you’re wary of saying no.