The challenge of saying “no”

Setting priorities and saying “no” to people, groups, causes, and activities can be tough — but it’s also rewarding. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve done some priority setting and no-saying of my own recently.

There’s a group I’ve been involved with for eight years; I’ve met some delightful people through the group, and it was a wonderful fit for me when I first joined. But over time, things have changed. A few weeks ago, I finally dropped out. It was hard to acknowledge it was time to move on. But, now that I’ve said my goodbyes, I’m really appreciating the extra time in my schedule. I’m also noticing that some projects I’d put aside for years are now getting done. And, saying goodbye to the group doesn’t mean saying goodbye to the friendships.

Learning to say “no,” when appropriate, is an important skill. As Merlin Mann said in a Beyond the To Do List podcast:

Everything you agree to do is other things you can’t do.

The most productive people are often those who do learn when to say no. Kevin Ashton highlighted this in his article “Creative People Say No,” which resonated with me even though I’m not an artist, a novelist, or such. I recommend the whole article, but these are a few excerpts:

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.” …

No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. …

How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is.

Peter Shankman, while encouraging others to say “yes” to new opportunities, noted in his article “Saying Yes vs Saying No” that there are many requests to which “no” is the right answer:

There are times when we should say no. The “can I pick your brain without paying you for your time” requests? Yeah, those are pretty much always a no. Not that I don’t want to help you, and if you’re just starting out, or have one question via email, I’ll always say yes. But I’ve learned to say no to those more often than not, because they negatively impact me. (As they do you, as well.) And that’s fine. There are times to say no.

But the best advice, for me, comes from Lisa Barone. She said this on Twitter, and it’s become a new mantra for me:

We only get 24 hrs in a day. So if the answer isn’t “OMG, YES!” it has to be “I’m sorry, but no.”

7 Comments for “The challenge of saying “no””

  1. posted by Jeannette on

    Just as there are those who say “Yes” when they mean “No” there are folks who seem to always say “no” even for those they say they care deeply about. I believe strongly in the power of “no” but life isn’t so black and white that it’s either “OMG, Yes!” or “I’m sorry, but no.” Don’t agree with that at all.

    If it were people would have an easier time deciding. I think it’s more helpful to focus on what is being asked, what it will entail and who is asking. And your own intention should you say “yes.” Is it fear? Obligation? Payback? Love? A sincere desire to provide a service?

    The fact is, though some folks will never say it or imply it or demand it, you do “owe” some people in your life, not because life/friendship is quid pro quo but because one wants to be able to give back to those who have made an effort for us.

    Being guilted into something is never acceptable but if someone is honest about their need, it is something you can do and there is no one else available, you may want to think long and hard before a “no.”

    Saying yes and begrudingly, well, that’s not a good idea either.

    Life is a trade-off. Yes, we have to avoid takers and those that would drain us all if we let them. But there are folks who rarely, if ever, ask for help, etc. and sometimes we need to rethink our own priorities.

    It is tricky but saying “no” is more than “My time is more valuable; I have more to do” etc., which this article sort of says. It’s not always about us or our projects.

    We need to look at the bigger picture of requests and evaluate them in the “now” of our own and the life of the person asking. Sometimes it is “No, I can’t do this. But, yes, I can do that.”

  2. posted by Elizabeth on

    I disagree with this concept — I think we have an obligation to others that requires us to at least consider saying “yes” even if it’s not an “OMG, YES” instance. As Jeannette says, above, it is not always about us — it is about others.

  3. posted by [email protected] on

    I’m actually really good at saying no to people outside my family. I know my limits and really try to protect my time (and sanity). But when it comes to my family, I have a really hard time saying no. However, in my defense, they are my top priority. But I know that occasionally I really do need to say no.

  4. posted by [email protected] on

    In response to Elizabeth’s comment, I agree with her. I think we should say yes whenever we can. Otherwise we can become very selfish with our time. So if it’s possible to say yes, I do. If I can’t, I say no.

  5. posted by Laurie Buchanan on

    I’m very good at saying, “That does not work for me.” These six little words are irrefutable, especially delivered in a courteous tone with a genuine smile.

  6. posted by Sandy on

    Just realizing that ‘no’ is an option can be a big help. Sometimes saying ‘no’ is really a matter of putting your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
    I’ve also learned that I need to say ‘yes’ not only when asked for help, but when help is offered. That one took me a while.
    Thanks for a thoughtful and controversial post — and comments.

  7. posted by Anwell Steve on

    Yes! I strongly agree with you Jeri. Saying no sometimes is not a means of insult on another person but it’s just a way of setting your priorities to a more noble one. You must learn how to let go of useless events in your life that pulls you down to reach your goals.

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