Saying No and Meaning It.

It's ok to say no

Do you agree to something and later regret it? Some folks proudly assert “I never say no.” The fact is when you say yes you are, by default, saying no to something else. Does it make sense to allow ever-changing winds of chance to set your priorities? Sometimes the right answer is a firm no. Getting comfortable with no requires a strategic mindset and resolve. 


Seven strategies to prioritize what matters most: 


  1. Be purpose driven. Get clear on what you want. Define your compelling yes. Have goals or even a written draft of your path or direction. When you know what matters most it will clarify the real cost of saying yes. Decide what comes first for you. Saying no gets easier as you have clarity on the synergy (or lack of) with your goals.   


  1. Don’t react. Respond. This means making time to seek clarity. Check your assumptions and don’t react in the moment. Ask pointed questions to learn about the ask. Bring a level of discernment to your response. Ask “why me?” I routinely say, “why are you asking me?” The response is always illuminating.  Don’t agree or decline until you’ve taken the request away for “think-time”. 


  1. Give yourself permission. News flash - we make our own lives stressful. The problem may not be that everyone is asking too much of you. The real problem could be you. Give yourself permission to just say no. Your boundaries are not an indulgence; they’re a necessity.  Your mental and physical health, your family time, or doing the work that you’re meant to be doing, requires protection.  This isn’t selfishness is self- care.    


  1. Provide alternatives. Consider who else could fulfill the ask. Explain why this person might be a good option.  Offer to make an introduction. This enables you to be helpful and considerate without abandoning your priorities.   


  1. Share what you are saying yes to. By providing a crisp response explaining your priorities, and what you are saying yes to, you demonstrate your strategic mindset. It’s not a laundry list of everything on your plate but a cogent rationale for why this isn’t a match for your time and skills. “I’m saying no because I’m focusing my time on…”   


  1. Consider who is asking. We are unduly influenced by power imbalance or a misplaced sense of obligation. Try to look past this lens and consider the request on its own merit relative to your goals. Adjust your reaction to the person asking and calibrate the right response.   


  1. Deliver no with conviction. A firm and unequivocal no is best. Be appreciative, respectful, and helpful but if the answer is no, be clear and don’t apologize. Own it, pat yourself on the back and move on.       


Resting comfortably with the strategic no can help guide your most important decisions - professionally and personally.  I invite you to take stock of what matters most to you, reflect on where your goals fail to align with your commitments, and take action to adjust or decline discordant commitments.  


Catherine J. Woodman
Catherine J. Woodman, APR, ICD.D

Catherine is an Executive Search Partner with KBRS, and a trusted advisor on leadership development and board governance matters.


She is an accomplished leader, skilled facilitator and insightful consultant - helping individuals and organizations elevate their potential and realize their goals. She has a track record of achieving results by building teams, creating and communicating vision, forging strategic partnerships, and meeting critical challenges through transformational change.