Say no without hesitation

A cartoon boat at sea

You are in a boat trying to get to shore. The boat has a hole in it and you really need to get it fixed. People pass by in other boats and one stops you urgently asking for help. Their boat has a problem; it’s light doesn’t work. Their ask seems pretty reasonable, so you say yes: you always want to help. The problem is you’re ignoring the hole in your boat. By the time you get to them, water has filled up and you’re sinking. The small hole has become a big nightmare and you can’t help anyone.

A water leak

Everything can be urgent, but not everything is important. To stop your metaphorical boat from sinking, say no politely and clearly so there are no misunderstandings. Every time you say yes to someone, you are saying no to someone else. Often they are the most important people: our family, friends and ourselves.

Saying no is daunting at first. We need to say no regularly for it to become a part of your everyday vocabulary. Sure this can be scary, especially when you are not in a strong position of authority. Over time, with practice, it becomes easier. You will build a reputation of being accountable: you only take on tasks you can commit to. Once people understand this, they stop asking so much.

This is not about not helping – we should help people when we can. This is about staying healthy in the work and having the confidence to say I am not going to do that because I know you can.

What about people who we can’t say no to?

If someone has a problem with your no, or are in a position of authority that saying no will be difficult, show them your tasks for the day. Say, if I take on this task I will have to stop doing one of these. Which one are you happy for me not to do? Often people will say their task is no longer that important, or take away something else that isn’t.

How to know what to say no to?

If you do not feel an immediate yes, your response should always be – let me get back to you. This will give you time to write up the consequences and energy list discussed in training 4.1. Do not feel compelled to give an answer immediately but do get back to people. Making these types of decisions is like lifting weights in a gym: after each repetition, you get stronger.