Everything You Need to Know About Saying No

Mar 17 / Emily Vajjala, PH.D.
Saying no is the easiest thing in the world. At least it should be. It’s a two-letter word. Easy to say. Easy to type. Simple and decisive.

So why do so many of us struggle with it?

Part of it is power dynamics. You may feel pressured to please  people in positions of authority. You might think saying yes and becoming the “go-to” person might line you up for a promotion, for example. It’s not easy to say no, especially to the boss.

The official ranking systems aren’t the only factor. In an essay published by the American Psychological Association, Rebecca Clay cites Dr. Mary McKinney, explaining that if you are a woman or a person of color, you may have an even harder time saying no. When white men say no, they are viewed as assertive. Assertiveness is considered a desirable trait! However, when a woman or a person of color says no, they are often deemed aggressive instead of assertive. Not so desirable. And definitely not fair.

So is it just about hierarchy, then?

Well, no.  It’s not always blatantly hierarchical. Being a yes-person or a people-pleaser is a tactic for avoiding conflict. In fact, even parents may struggle saying no to their children, despite sitting at the top of the family hierarchical pyramid. Who needs the fight, right? 

That means, if you are a particularly conflict-avoidant personality, you may have a harder time saying no. But ask yourself:  Why is saying no likely to create a conflict? Is that the reality, or just a perception?

We can’t do everything for everyone. 

So, what do we do about it?

Before I get to you all, sitting at the edge of your seats, wanting to know my tips for saying no, I’m first going to address the askers (and you may find that you are both!)  

Don’t contribute to the problem.

There’s no harm in asking, you may think. But remember that women and people of color may struggle to say no more than their white, male counterparts. Don’t overburden the people in your life, whether they be friends, family, colleagues, or subordinates. Be mindful of who you ask, when you ask, and how you ask. 

In fact, ask yourself, “why am I asking this person in particular?”  Are you asking because you are aware of their technical skills to do the job well? Good. Go ahead and ask, but manage your expectations and accept if the answer is no. Are you asking because you think they have extra time? You may be wrong! Or are you asking because you simply expect they are the most likely to say yes? If it’s the latter, ask yourself where that perception comes from. You may need to rethink that strategy.

How to say NO.

So here it is. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. My tips for saying NO.  I’ve got a few of them, all of which I have successfully employed myself at some point.

You may not need to answer right away. Simply say “let me get back to you.”  Take some time to weigh the pros and cons, and if the answer is no, you can strategize how to say it.

Do you know someone who might be better suited for the task? Suggest them. Just remember my advice from above as well. Don’t contribute to someone else becoming overburdened.

Remember that you won’t impress if you always say yes. You may be trying to impress the boss by taking on a lot of projects, but will you be able to do all of them well? Don’t overdo it.

Just say no. But do it graciously. “Thank you for thinking of me, but I need to focus on my other projects."
On a similar point, while you should say no politely, also do so decisively. Don’t let your “No” sound negotiable. Say “No.” Don’t say “No?”  Small punctuation change, but a significant difference.
Say yes… selectively. When there’s a project you know you’d enjoy, or that you have the skills to complete, say yes. If you practice saying no at other times, you’ll have the time for the things you want and need to do!
Practice it with me. “No, thank you.”

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