For such a small and insignificant word, ‘no’ is surprisingly hard to say if you’re not under the age of 6. Think about it – how many times have you said ‘no’ to an extra curricular request this week? Have you taken on an assignment, agreed to attend a meeting, stayed late at work or done a favour for a family member or friend – even though you didn’t really have the time, the inclination or the energy?

We’re all guilty of it to one extent or another. As we grow up from childhood and begin to gain self-awareness, the world around us becomes more complex – and so do our emotions. We start to seek approval from others, perhaps we experience guilt, we might start to fear being excluded from the group or looking weak in front of people. (My blog here has an in-depth look at these feelings that make it hard for us to say no). As a result – we start saying ‘yes’ more often. We agree to do things we shouldn’t be doing or don’t necessarily want to do. Of course, this is fine, in principle. Helping others out is a nice thing to do and it is all part of the mutually cooperative society that humans have successfully constructed. The problem comes when saying ‘yes’ becomes a habit rather than a considered response, when pleasing other people becomes more important to us than looking after our own mental and physical health, and when constantly doing things for others tips our own lives out of balance. 

This can often happen when you start a family. The demands on your time and energy increase dramatically. The pressures of work and home compete and continuing to routinely say ‘yes’ to requests in both spheres can lead to stress and overwhelm. In order to be in control of your life and career, and to balance the two successfully, therefore, you need to set boundaries (see last week’s blog on this subject here). How you work and how others perceive and treat you is a reflection of the boundaries you set. Learning how to say no, then, is essential for setting these boundaries, showing others how you want to be treated, and maintaining balance.

So how do you do it?

It’s all about your mindset.

1. Understand the fear.
Behind your reluctance to say no, is a belief that declining other people’s requests will have negative consequences. Reflect on the reasons why it’s hard to say no as mentioned above and try to understand what’s going on for you in terms of your personal beliefs.

2. Remember that these are beliefs and not facts.
Beliefs are the just the filter through which we see the world – they are not facts or evidence. This means if your beliefs about saying no aren’t serving you (ie. they’re causing you to be overwhelmed or to feel that you are becoming beholden to other people’s demands) then you can change those beliefs.

3. Challenge your existing beliefs.
Ask yourself “what if the opposite were true?”. Search for evidence to support that. When you hear someone say no, what does it mean? What are the consequences of them doing so? If you do this work properly, you’ll find evidence that saying no can have a negative impact, but you’ll also find plenty of evidence that saying no is a positive thing that has either a neutral effect (i.e. that the ‘no’ is accepted and respected as a response) or a positive one (i.e. that the person on the receiving end has more respect towards and better clarity regarding the person saying no). All of which means that saying no is neither good nor bad, positive or negative. What matters is WHAT YOU MAKE IT MEAN.

4. Consider how your own beliefs will contribute to how your ‘no’ is perceived.
If, in your own mind, ‘no’ means that you are letting someone down or being weak or neglecting your duties, then this is exactly how your no is likely to come across and potentially how it will be received. You will say no apologetically, guiltily and reinforce the fear and impact that you were hoping to avoid in the first place.

When you decide that your ‘no’ means that you are making an informed decision based on your priorities and circumstances at the time, and therefore is not an indictment of your relationship or your character, then your no is more likely to be received that way because that is how you will present it.

Once you have managed to reframe your mindset about saying no – the rest is all down to practice. Make sure you have a range of no responses to choose from depending on the circumstances. Try these out and see if they work for you.

1. The helpful no.
I talked about this in the setting boundaries blog. This is saying no to a request and offering a suggestion/information that will help the asker find the solution elsewhere. It’s perfect in circumstances where you’re afraid of letting someone down or fear disapproval, such as in the workplace. For e.g. Q: ’”We need someone to represent the firm at next’s week’s awards ceremony, we’d like you to go” A: “I’d have loved to but I have a transaction closing that day. Have you asked X?, I remember they were disappointed not to be asked last time and I think they’d welcome the opportunity to build their network.”

2. The non-negotiable no.
This no is reserved for when someone has or is threatening to breach a hard boundary for example by issuing a physical or serious verbal threat. It’s good for sending a clear message about your hard boundaries and demonstrating what you will and won’t tolerate.

3. The compassionate no.
This is perfect for when you’re feeling guilty or want to ensure you protect the relationship. I use this with my kids all the time. For eg.  Q: ”Mum, can I have 3 scoops of ice-cream? ” or “Can I stay up until 10pm?”. A: ”Luca – I love you, but no”. Prefix your no with a clear reference to the quality of your relationship. It works with your boss too. “I am absolutely committed to the success of this department/firm, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to send my comments on this document until Friday.”

4. The courageous no.
This is the no that you are afraid to say, most likely don’t want to say, but you say it anyway because your instinct is telling you (in some cases ‘screaming’ at you) that you’ll regret the decision later. For eg: Q: Will you be our class rep next year? A: “I’d love to say yes, but I’m certain that my other commitments wouldn’t allow me the time I’d like to give to the job and which such an important position deserves.” It’s great for responding to requests for volunteering when you know you don’t have the capacity.

5. The concrete no.
This is the no you say once and stick to, no matter how many times you are asked. Sometimes the person asking will not want to take no for an answer, and will keep asking in an attempt to wear you down or guilt you into a yes. That’s when you need the resilient no. Once you’ve made the decision, you close the debate in your own mind. You do not reopen it or re-evaluate the decision (except where there is new, significant, relevant information). You say the same no, repeatedly until the message is received. You do not remake the decision each time you are asked. The decision is made once, repeated verbally as necessary, and you move on.

If no isn’t something that comes easily or naturally to you, it could be the reason why you struggle with work/ life balance or you find yourself feeling frustrated or resentful about the demands others make of you. Remember – it’s not other people’s responsibility to protect your work life balance or to judge how much they ask of you. It’s yours. Take ownership of how you spend your time and how you allow others to treat you by using the power of no more often. Challenge your limiting beliefs about what it means to say no, and practise using these different types of no in different situations – do it repeatedly and I promise you’ll become a natural!

For more tips on achieving a successful work/life balance – tune into the Babyproof Podcast.