The art of saying 'no'

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, August 16, 2010; 20

By Joyce E.A. Russell

In last week's column I mentioned that when feeling overwhelmed, there are a number of things you can do for your own sanity such as set goals, manage the clutter, disconnect, say no and ask for help. I said I would talk more about saying no in today's column because it is often one of the most difficult things for many of us to do. Yet, perhaps the most important thing you can do for your own future health and well-being -- and that of those closest to you -- is to say no to demands or opportunities.

Why don't we say no?

Sometimes, we take things on because we think, "If I don't do it, it won't get done." How many of us have agreed to coach our child's sports team because no other parent seemed willing to step forward and the season was possibly going to be canceled? And then once we became coach, all of a sudden parents seemed to miraculously appear at games and practices, armed with plenty of suggestions about what we could be doing differently as a coach of their star children.

Or maybe we don't say no because we believe that we are the only person who can do it the "correct way." Yet, it probably will get done if it's really important. Somehow, somewhere, the company will find someone to take care of it. If something happened to you, who would the company find to step in and take it over? Maybe you could get that person involved in it now. And if you think it wouldn't get done at all, then maybe that job is not that important.

Sometimes, we take things on because it entices us. We really don't want to say no because the project is interesting or will help someone out. Maybe we agreed to chair the charity golf tournament sponsored by work because we believed in the mission of the charity. This is good, isn't it?

All of these things we take on may be good. But when added together, they just might be too much for us at a particular point in our life. Then, we are the ones feeling overwhelmed, and our families, friends, and co-workers suffer because of our mental or physical exhaustion. Taking things on is important, but we also need to be able to pace ourselves.

What can we do?

First, you have to decide if you should say no to a particular request. Look at your current obligations and overall priorities before making any new commitments. Ask yourself how important the new commitment is to you. Maybe it is something you can take on at a later time. Occasionally we view things as now or never, but are they really?

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to sleep on it. If you have trouble sleeping, that generally is a good sign that you are feeling stressed about the possibility of another project on your plate and you should probably decline.

If it is a big request, you might want to talk to your family about it -- what it would mean in terms of having to work more hours, work weekends or nights, traveling, etc. What is important here is to set realistic expectations for what your schedule will be if you take on the request. The other part of this discussion should be a negotiation of what will go off the schedule once you take on the request. Too many people just take on extra projects without talking to those family members or work colleagues who will end up being affected by our decisions.

When saying no, keep your response brief or simple and firm and direct. Use phrases such as "Thanks for coming to me, but I'm afraid it's not convenient right now." Or "I'm sorry but I can't help today." Try to be strong in your body language and don't over-apologize. Be careful about using phrases such as "I'm not sure" or "I don't think I can." These can be interpreted to mean that you might say yes later.

Another idea is to buy yourself some time. Instead of immediately saying yes, you might instead say, "I'll get back to you," then consider your options. Having thought it through, you'll be able to say no with greater confidence. Remember, when you say "no," you're turning down a request, not a person.

Be ready to repeat the "no." You may find it necessary to refuse a request several times before the other person accepts your response. But you need to be firm.

Remember, learning to say no is not only important to your overall health and productivity, but to the well-being of those closest to you as well. Be strong -- say "no" sometimes!

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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