Saying no is difficult in the world we live in. People are asking of our attention, our time, our resource and so on at increasing rates.

It’s human nature to want to say yes and there is an underlying fear in the workplace and generally throughout life of being someone who is unreasonable.

We don’t want to offend people but ultimately the end result of overcommitting is that dreaded combination of over-promising and under-delivering.

If you have an enthusiasm for new projects (like I do) then you may be particularly susceptible to this.

It’s important for us to realise a crucial lesson as we tackle what is most important for us to focus on in our short time on this blue dot called Earth.

Because of course only we are truly responsible for our own lives and the decisions we’ve made of where our time, energy and resource is invested.

Saying no is not fundamentally a bad thing. It’s about saying yes to something better.

Every time we give in to the demands of those who shout the loudest (whether our boss, our parents, our spouse, our friends or so on) we are cutting out something else unintentionally from our life.

Whilst I’m a big believer in expanding our capacity and carrying a can-do attitude in regards to the increase of our productivity, it’s also true that your mental focus and energy for the day is fairly fixed.

The more interruptions that come in, the more we struggle to keep our attention on the main thing. Every switch and change of task, costs us in mental recovery time to get back on track.

Many who we would consider to be successful (e.g. CEOs of massive public companies) are often successful at the detriment of another area of their life.

They are saying yes to a particular lifestyle (work responsibilities) that often result in saying no to others (perhaps the disintegration of their marriage or family life).

Somehow, I have a feeling that if we were to be truly objective, most of us would agree that this is simply a cost not worth paying.

And yet many of us make similar choices each day out of the fear of pleasing people.

Saying no is not a dirty word, it’s about saying yes to the things that really matter.

Here are some practical keys to saying no:

1) Start with a yes spirit

It’s important to check your heart and motivation before you move forward. Because saying no is not about being unhelpful, living an overly measured life or being unwilling to live life on a bigger level that impacts more than just my little self.

It’s much easier to say no when you are someone who comes with a proven track record of saying yes.

You’ve said yes to the last minute request from your boss. Within reason, you’re available and you’re helpful. This builds up a deposit of yes-ness that gives you the right to say no from time to time.

This blog post isn’t an excuse just to be grumpy or lazy of course. Are you someone who lives for self or lives for others?

Do you prefer yourself or do you make time for interruptions that matter to the mission? Start with yes before you move to no.

2) Predetermine your commitments

Part of the reason we struggle to say no is simply because we don’t know what we are saying yes to. This can be applied in the macro of our lives (think vision, purpose, calling, dreams) but also to the granular.

If there are certain important regular tasks that need to fit into the week then why not create slots for these to exist?

For example, I have in mind 1-2 pastoral slots to meet people each week. These are typically lunch time or towards the end of the week when I know I’m better relationally and creates space at the start of the week for heavy focus.

It’s not a religious rule but it does help me create focus and say no to some things by default.

Sundays for our family are a predetermined commitment to be in church. If another event comes up then either we figure out a way to fit in both or we simply say no. That’s something that matters for us so we make sure we prioritise it. Your priorities may be different of course.

Pre-determining your commitments allows you to live according to your own design instead of everyone else’s request.

3) Don’t make up excuses

Perhaps this is a British culture thing but we really do struggle to say no directly. This is woven into the English language which gives us so many possibilities to mitigate speech and go all passive aggressive. Not so in the German language for example which cuts straight to the point.

I remember hearing someone order locally in German by saying, ‘Ich nehme ein Kola’ which means literally, ‘I take a coke’. In English we might say something more like, ‘I’d like a coke please.’

If you want to say no to a request or invitation then just say so. Don’t give any excuses or say you’re coming (then cancel later) or so on.

Let’s not lead people on or treat people without the dignity of honesty.

What does this look like practically? I’m glad you asked.

4) Use the yes-no-yes sandwich

How do we practically say no? It’s pretty much like an encouragement sandwich.

Start with yes. Thank them and express your appreciation of the value of the thing they are inviting you to.

Note that we’re not saying we can go. We’re saying that we think it’s awesome and we appreciate them thinking of us.

Move into no. Give a clear and simple answer and explain why you can’t on this occasion. Keep it short and don’t waffle. Remember that your no is about the bigger yes you are connecting with.

So most of the time you should just give them the real reason. It might be that you can’t make an out of hours meeting because you want to put your kids to bed.

Or you can’t make breakfast because you have plans to head to the gym. People can handle it. If it’s something that you simply don’t want to be there then refer back to your calendar or schedule as the reason. Let the calendar say no for you.

Do NOT push back the request to a later date if you know you’re not going to be able to deliver. You’re just creating a future request you have to say no to and this time you’re going to feel guilty when it comes around. Just say no!

Head back to yes. Thank them for thinking of you or reaching out to you and wish them the best with it.

Let’s take a really practical example.

Let’s say a colleague is inviting you to a meeting and would like you to be involved in a volunteering opportunity in the workplace. But you simply don’t want to.

Not because you’re a terrible person but because you simply do not have the headspace for another project.

Dear Jane, thank you so much for reaching out about <insert opportunity here>.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing this project unfold as it’s going to add so much value to <insert stakeholders here>. I can see this is a really significant opportunity so thank you for including me.

Unfortunately due to my other commitments, I can see that this isn’t something I’m able to truly prioritise right now.

Once again, thank you for the invitation. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about next time we catch up at <insert event here> and wish you all the best with it.

Kind regards,

Jack

It’s important to note that requests coming from your boss or mentor are somewhat different. Don’t start saying no to your actual job description or real family commitments.

We’ll talk about that in more detail in the last point.

5) Connect someone else into the mix

If it’s something you care about succeeding then proposing an additional solution is a great way to extricate yourself. It also communicates very clearly that you’re not just looking to avoid work but have a yes spirit.

Often there is someone else who is a better fit than you or would relish the opportunity you may not. Learn to invite others into these things or at least offer the introduction.

This is only fair for decent requests of course.

6) Consider the role of a mentor

It’s important that we come back to the premise that we started upon that the goal is not to say no. The goal is to say yes to the things that really matter.

In a workplace setting, this is explicitly linked to your boss or manager. If you find that you are getting inundated with requests that are distracting you from your main yes (as in the role the company have hired you for) then this is worth having a conversation just to open up and ask how you can better prioritise.

Bring cold hard facts of how much time you’re spending on x, y, z as it’s very hard for any reasonable person to demand you work an impossible scenario. It’s time to find a new employer if that were the case.

In the case of mentorship outside of work (as not everyone’s boss is or should be their mentor), we should consider the role of coaches, friends, pastors and leaders.

Understand that part of the role of a mentor is to help you say yes to the main thing and to help analyse and critique the things that do not need to be present in our lives.

Saying no is not about isolating ourselves and living a self-orientated life. Open yourself up for correction, wisdom and input and you’ll find that you become more effective, productive and impactful in your world.

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