Master the art of saying no to stay sane

Are you a queen of over-delivery?

How easy do you find it to say no? To turn down a client, say no to an appearance at an event, or volunteer at a child’s school? Many of us can’t bear saying no. So we say yes instead. As a result, we’re overwhelmed, stressed-out, and other things have to give — like sleep, or time spent with people you care about.

And if you’re a woman you probably have a far harder time turning people down than a man does. Why? As I’ve written before, women are expected to be pleasant, accommodating, and to put others first. These traits are society’s default setting for womanhood. Refusing a request clashes with that stereotype, and women feel it keenly. It makes us uncomfortable. We often feel guilty about being ‘rude.’ As a result, we tend to take on too much.

As Lisa Gates of consultancy She Negotiates once told me, women are “the queens of over-delivery.” We promise a lot and we deliver it, too. But at what cost?

Affirmative inaction

When you say yes to everything there’s a good chance you won’t be able to do it all well. There’s a limit to how much you can help others when you yourself are wilting with exhaustion. Not to mention the fact you’re so frazzled there isn’t a lot of you left for anyone else.

Saying no is an art, and it gives you back your time. It means you’re protecting yourself so you can be more effective at the tasks you actually need to do to run your business, and to have a life.

Lisa and her business partner, Vickie Pynchon, have a simple piece of advice when it comes to women saying no: say it, and stop talking after that.

This is tough. Your “be nice” brain is working overtime even as your mouth has dared to refuse, so you blabber out a long explanation about family responsibilities or an event you have to go to that night. They give an example of a line you can use that should end further inquiry: “I’m really working on creating balance in my life right now. No thank you.” End of explanation.

Still, refusing with that level of simplicity is challenging for a lot of people, including me. It’s natural to want to cushion what we think will be the other person’s disappointment or annoyance with an excuse about why we can’t comply. If that’s your inclination, keep it short: “Thanks so much for thinking of me for the project. I’m going to say no because I already have a full calendar next month.”

Obviously how you use these tactics will depend on the situation. If you tend to say yes in a knee-jerk way because you want to help and fear being perceived as less than polite, this will take some practice, but it’s worth it. A good time to say yes to “no” is when the request in your inbox or at the end of the phone starts to fill you with unease and/or resentment. For me, this is a clear sign that I should not get involved. It’s just a question of framing my refusal.

No, and …

Here are seven ways to say no that I picked up from Lisa and Vickie. Note the fact that they don’t use “but” in most of these sentences. Instead they use “and,” which has a more positive ring.

  • Simple no: “I’d love to take part, and I’m going to have to decline.”
  • No with help: “I love that you thought of me, and I’m unable to participate. How can I help you find someone else?”
  • No with appreciation: “I think your idea is great, and I can’t take part right now.”
  • No and yes: “I’d love to take part, but at a later date. Can you call me again in September?”
  • No with a specific yes: “I’d love to help with your project. I’m on deadline until Thursday. Can we talk on Friday?”
  • No when you don’t know: “Sounds interesting, I need to sleep on that.” OR “I need to check with my boss/partner.”
  • No with values: “If I take on another task right now I won’t be honoring my commitment to my business/family.”

Each of these responses is polite and firm. You just need to get used to using them. Start practicing and watch your time come back.

Ashley Milne-Tyte
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a writer and public radio reporter who was born in London and lives in New York. She hosts The Broad Experience, a podcast about women and the workplace that covers stuff we think about but don't always talk about. She also teaches audio storytelling skills at Columbia Journalism School. Connect with Ashley on Twitter and Facebook.