Why ‘no’ is the hardest word to say (and why you need to say it more often).

If you’re working in corporate law – even before you have children – you’ll be no stranger to frequent and stressful demands on your time and energies. Long hours, pressures to meet billing targets, difficult clients, back to back meetings and a highly competitive, high stakes atmosphere all combine to create a perfect storm of tensions and commitments. Add in the stresses of juggling work with raising a young family, and if you’re not careful, you could well be on the path to overwhelm, exhaustion and eventual burnout.

So what’s going on? If you take a step back and look at your life objectively, you’ll immediately be able to identify the problem – saying ‘yes’ much too often. 

This was an epiphany I had when reaching the end of my tether trying to balance my challenging legal career with managing a busy household and bringing up my boys. I was inadvertently saying yes to everything that was asked of me – meetings, extra hours at work, favours from friends, school commitments, play-dates, last minute requests to make costumes or attend assemblies and sports matches – I said yes dutifully and habitually, and eventually ended up with far too much to do, and far too much stress to cope with. Faced with exhaustion, I suddenly realised that the most important thing I could do for myself, for my sanity, for my family and career, was to say ‘no’ more often. This gave me immediate clarity – I could now cut through the confusion of vying commitments, the working out of what was important or urgent, the feeling of swimming through treacle – and just say ‘no’!  I could concentrate on what was important to me, be more focused and productive and rid myself of the overwhelm that was paralysing me. 

A blindingly obvious solution then – so why do so many of us struggle with uttering such a simple word? Why are we so squeamish about saying ‘no’?


Well, that simple word belies a whole range of complex emotions.


1. The fear of disapproval, conflict or of letting someone down.
We’re too nice! The success of the human race has a lot to do with our brains, and a lot to do with  our co-operative natures. We are hardwired to be helpful to others as we know that we will need people to work co-operatively with us at other times. Co-operation and mutual help makes for successful societies. So doing favours for others has become second nature to us – we instinctively want people to like us and it’s in our interests not to disappoint or let other people down. But the modern world and technology has opened us up to many more requests for help and co-operation than we are designed to cope with. We are linked to so many more people on a daily basis that it is impossible to fulfil all requests on our time. However – we all know this!  Humans are also equipped with a great capacity for empathy – most people will understand and respect an honest admission that we just don’t have the capacity to help sometimes.

2. Guilt.
This is a biggie – especially when it comes to family commitments. Anyone who has missed their child’s school play will recognise it! But we must remember that trying to please everyone all the time is not going to help anyone in the long run if we go on to suffer burnout and exhaustion. Say yes to what matters – and what matters is that you have the energy and clarity to function properly. Prioritise events you will attend and explain why it’s impossible to attend everything. Think of alternatives – “I can’t do this, but I can do that” – you can say no while still showing that you care.

3. The perception of weakness.
We all want to be seen as capable, competent and strong – particularly when it comes to our working lives. But saying yes to everything that is asked of you can sometimes have the opposite effect.  If you never say no to unreasonable requests, people will continue to make them. Why do some people get the worst jobs in the office whilst others seem to have their pick? Of course it’s always hard to say no to a tyrannical boss, but judge your circumstances wisely. If possible, show yourself to be accommodating but firm. Be helpful when you can – but not at the expense of your own health and sanity. Being firm but fair will ultimately command you greater respect.

4. Being in with the ‘in’ crowd.
We don’t like to stand out from the crowd or be different  – we want to do what everyone else is doing – we feel safe in a group. If everyone else is agreeing to something, it’s hard to go against the flow. This feels particularly important from a work perspective. If everyone is working late – how do we say no, even if we have to pick up the baby from nursery and no-one else does? This is why it’s important to establish a ‘firm but fair’ approach before you go on to have a family and become a little ‘different’ from your colleagues. Build your career capital before you have children. Make yourself indispensable – strive for excellence, network, raise your profile, get your work noticed. (I talk more about this here).  Start as you mean to go on. Think about and focus on your unique benefits – the more ’special’ you have made yourself in your career, the easier it will be for you to stick to your guns and say ‘no’ when the need eventually arises.

5. Habit.
Humans are creatures of habit. The more we do things, the deeper our neural pathways become making it harder for us to do anything ‘different’. If saying ‘yes’ to everything is a habit of lifetime, it can be hard to break. I found it painful when I first made a concerted effort to say no to requests. My heart would race, my palms would sweat – I had a physical response to breaking the habit – just as a person might to withdrawing from nicotine!  But as with any habit – if you can keep going until the new behaviour becomes the habit – your battle is almost won. Don’t give up! 



So – despite all these complex emotions involved in saying ‘no’, it’s definitely worth persevering. Start small and practise. Start saying no to the little things – all those daily urgencies that clutter your mind and paralyse you from getting on with the things that really matter. As you get better at it, the feelings of overwhelm and panic will begin to dissipate. The panic of time passing too quickly, of feeling stuck in a mire of competing priorities – it will all begin to fade.  Instead you will be able to watch with delight as chunks of freedom begin to appear in your life – spaces that you can fill with important but not urgent stuff – relaxation, learning, leisure, fun and relationships. 

Spaces for you to be you.

What could be better?



Tune into the Babyproof podcast for more tips on how to balance a challenging career with family life.