Saying No Isn't Selfish: Tools to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty

Saying No Isn't Selfish: Tools to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty
Saying no takes practice, but is essential for you to focus on things that matter most to you.

 One of the byproducts of the tech down-turn is not only a feeling that the sky is falling, but something more nefarious is afoot – a lack of confidence in ourselves due to the changing labor market. How can we possibly push back, or say no in this market? Won't we look ungrateful? Or, what I have heard quite a bit, "I am just going to do it all! That way I am indispensable!"

I have a hard truth to share. Doing it ALL is a surefire way to do nothing particularly well.

 We've all been there. We are already doing a lot, and then suddenly we are approached by a peer, or manager and are asked to take on even more 😟. It's complicated to say no, and it challenges you to tap into your confidence well so that you can say no, AND continue to be respected, seen as a team player, and overall crush it in the workplace – you absolutely can, and in fact sometimes saying "no" bolsters this perception of you (more on that below).

 I also want to acknowledge that saying "no" has been particularly challenging for me in the past. I think the reason for this is both a combination of imposter syndrome (if I say no, they'll realize I don't have what it takes), and an unwavering desire to want to "fit in" as a person of color in the workplace (I am already different, if I say no, I won't be part of the team). The truth is, saying no is a critical tool for you to set boundaries, and maintain your personal and professional well-being.

 So how should we say no? Below are a few techniques/tools I have refined over the years and they have served me well:

1/ Validate that your colleague, friend, etc. has a reasonable explanation for the ask (most people have a good reason): Acknowledging your peer, or manager as coming to you with a reasonable ask is a great way to both listen, and validate their need/ask. It doesn't mean you blindly agree, but listening first, and conveying a sense of understanding really puts the conversation on a solid footing.

2/ Pivot & Use a Tool: After you've heard the ask, it's time to pivot the conversation and use one of the below tools to say no:

Your "No" Tools: These are frameworks I've used in the past to help me craft my "no" message in a way that is firm, clear, and maintains a positive relationship with the asker:

"The Tradeoff" This tool is all about explaining your context, your priorities, and explaining, "If we take on X, we will have to postpone Y." This tool is best used with a manager, who can determine what should be dropped in favor of something else. It's good for you to share your POV here as well.

"The Empowerment" This tool is great for when someone comes to you with an ask to lead a new project, or to dive into a workstream that isn't aligned with your priorities at the moment, or you think more due diligence needs to be done first on the askers side. You can say, "That sounds interesting, why don't you take the first pass at this and then let me know how I might provide support as the project progresses."

"The Hold Please" This tool is great when you just need time to process where this ask sits within your broader priorities. Essentially, you just need a pause before you'd be willing to commit to support something. You can say, "We have a prioritization meeting as a team coming up in the next week or so, can we re-visit this until after that sync? I want to ensure I have a clear understanding of where this fits into our broader priorities." You can also simply say, "Let me get back to you on that in a day or so." We tend to say "yes" in the moment. Getting some distance will help you better prioritize.

"The Audible" This tool is the one I use most frequently. If you can't, or don't want to support, take an extra moment to offer alternatives back to the asker. For example, "I couldn't lead the inbound project, but I did find some interesting studies related to your key questions. I hope this helps!" People really appreciate you taking a few minutes to offer alternatives. It makes you seem like someone who genuinely had a good reason to say no, and someone who took the time to still help in a different capacity.

Finally, below are just some general guiding principles I have found to be true when saying no:

1/ Be honest: If you're not interested in a particular project, or just don't have the capacity. Say so, but also say why. Like most things, honesty is your best policy.

2/ Lukewarm maybe is so much worse, than a pure NO: People will be infinitely more upset with you if you half commit to something you can't actually support rather than just saying, "No, I can't take this on at this time."

3/ Use assertive language: "I don't think I'll be able to support you." is not as good as, "I can't support you at this time." This helps to clearly establish your boundaries and doesn't leave room for additional negotiation. Be confident in your boundaries.

4/ Don't Apologize: It's important that if you are simply turning down a request that you really can't take on, you have nothing to apologize for. Saying sorry implies that you made a mistake or did something wrong. You haven't. Setting boundaries, and delivering on YOUR goals/priorities is nothing to apologize for.

5/ This takes practice: It takes time and practice to get good at saying "no" and feeling okay about it after the fact. Just like anything else in life, you won't be great at this in the beginning and that's okay/to be expected. Earmark some time to practice saying no – it will get easier overtime.

 Having boundaries, focusing on your priorities and goals is nothing to feel guilty about. The people who have made meaningful impact, who have the balance they desire in their lives, etc. they have said "No" a lot so they can say a resounding "YES" to the things they really care about/have the time to commit to. I hope you do the same.