How to say 'No' so you can say 'Yes'

By Robin Smith | 28 June 2021

Life is full of trade-offs.

Every time we say yes, we are saying no to something else. Likewise, every time we say no, we are saying yes to other things. 

Are your priorities - the people you care about, the work that matters most - getting your yes? 

Are you saying yes to the things you really want to commit to? Or are you saying yes because you don't know how to assertively and politely say no?

Puzzled woman choosing between yes no

An honest no is better than a resentful yes

Being considerate of other people's needs and wanting to be a team player is important. In order to be an effective team player, you also need to be realistic about your capacity, energy reserves and bandwidth. 

When you know your priorities and values - what you want time and energy to say yes to - saying no becomes much simpler. 

Ironically, when we're feeling stressed, we're more likely to say no to ourselves, to stop doing the things that bring us joy and replenish us. This is actually the time we need to say yes to ourselves and no to others. If we can identify why we're feeling stressed, we can actually take steps to reduce our stress. 

Feeling overloaded? Say no and push back on tasks of lower priority.

Feeling anxious about how much you have to get done in so little time? Say no to multitasking. Slow down and single-task. Taking much-needed and deserved breaks (intentional) is one thing—getting distracted (involuntarily) is another. Research shows that it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted or distracted.

"Saying no saves you time in the future. Saying yes costs you time in the future. No is like a time credit. You can spend that block of time in the future. Yes is like a time debt. You have to repay that commitment at some point. No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility." - James Clear

How to navigate requests

  • Say 'yes' and leave the responsibility of task management with the person making the request: "Yes, I'm happy to work on that. What would you like me to deprioritise in order to do this?"
  • Say 'yes' with a time disclaimer:  "Yes, although it might take me a little while to get to it given the other priorities that I have at the moment." Or "Yes, of course I can. I can get it to you by the end of the week." These are subtle ways of saying that you have a full workload, but you want to be accommodating. 
  • Say 'no' for right now but maybe later: 'No, I can't at this time; however, if you leave it with me, I will get to it as soon as I can.' Or 'No, not right now, how urgent is it?' Or 'No, but there may be a chance later in the week.'
  • Say 'no' with your rationale: 'No, I can't as I simply have too much on at the moment, and I do not want to rush and make a mistake.'
  • Say 'no' and offer a solution: 'I am at full capacity right now, have you asked so and so....' Or 'I am unable to help right now, are there other options that you have considered to get this done?'
  • Use other words to say 'no': "Thank you for thinking of me, I would have liked to help with this, but I don't currently have the bandwidth. Please consider me again in the future."

Basic guidelines for saying no kindly

Try out some of the strategies above and below. Build your own 'no' repertoire and give it a go. If you're not used to saying 'no' or considering your own workload and energy before saying yes, it will take some time and practice.

  • Be polite and empathetic. We all know how it feels when someone can't do something we are asking. 
  • Practice saying no - the more that you say no, the easier it becomes.
  • Start with a small no - The next time you're deciding what to watch on Netflix, be honest about your preferences and say no to shows you don't like. 
  • Don't always say no - be careful not to fall into the trap of alienating yourself from others because you always say no to everything or not being a team player. 
  • Soften the word if you can - because the word no is short and sharp, it can often sound abrupt. Try adding words with a similar meaning, such as 'unable to' or 'can't at the moment' or 'not right now'.
  • Choose your no strategically. There are things you want to say yes to. Helping others is good for our sense of contribution and wellbeing. Just remember that every yes is a no to something else. Choose your contributions wisely. 

About the author, Robin Smith

Robin is the Head of Content for Synergy Health Ltd. She has a Master’s degree in Physiotherapy and is an experienced health care professional, trainer and communicator in health, wellbeing and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about mindset, mental health and innovation and is the founder of Healthier Humans and the co-host of the Healthier Humans podcast.

Robin Smith Content Lead at Synergy Health

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