I’m working with two clients who have the same goal – to refocus their time and energy into different areas. One of them is a leader who is trying to spend less time in the everyday operations so he can devote more time to vision and strategy. The other wants to carve out time for her own development but is finding it difficult to get away from her day-to-day responsibilities. Both have been successful because they are “do-ers,” known for their ability to get things done. Both have the same challenge of learning how to say “no” when people come to them with requests, so they can have time for their priorities. While it might feel uncomfortable, difficult, or even impossible, here are some ways you can start making “no” a part of your workplace vocabulary.
Know your priorities. The first step in learning to say “no” is knowing what to say “no” to. This means taking time to figure out what’s most important to you and how you want to be spending your time. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard is, “Every time you say ‘yes’ to something you are saying ‘no’ to something else.” We each get 24 hours in every day, and it’s up to you to control how you spend them. An exercise I do with my clients is have them track two weeks of how much time they spend on what activities. Then determine the ideal picture of how you want to spend your time, both at work and outside of work. Understanding the shifts you need to make to get from here to there can help you decide when to say “no.”
Understand your fears. If we say “yes” when we really want to say “no,” it is frequently because we have some fears or concerns around saying “no.” If you don’t understand this underlying driver, you’ll have a difficult time changing your behavior. When someone makes a request of you, bring awareness to the moment by asking yourself what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. For example, are you overwhelmed because you have so much else on your plate? Worried other people will think you’re not a good teammate? With this insight, you can ask yourself (1) if your concerns are real or imagined, and (2) what you can do to address them, to help you feel more comfortable with saying “no.”
Practice, practice, practice. I used to help teach self-defense classes for women. The first activity was telling everyone to line up, look straight ahead, and loudly and firmly say, “No!” Every time, most of the class felt very uncomfortable with this exercise. Common reactions were to remain quiet, say “no” in a low or normal voice, or laugh and feel sheepish. But after modeling and encouraging this behavior, it wouldn’t take long for the class to warm up to it, and five minutes later, everyone would be shouting “NO!!!” at the top of their lungs. This might not be an effective workplace tactic, but it is a powerful demonstration of defining and enforcing boundaries, and in developing the comfort level to do so. Try low-risk situations to start saying “no,” like to the person who comes to your door selling you siding. (Unless you really need new siding). Like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets. And remember, you can be firm, kind, and respectful all at once – enforcing your boundaries doesn’t mean you need to tromp on someone else’s.
Saying “no” is no different than any other skill or habit – it takes deliberate effort to cultivate. But if you want to spend your days on what really matters to you, take the time to develop and flex this muscle.