Editorial – Saying yes too often?

Editorial – Saying yes too often?

The big boss wants to drop another project in your lap. You should say ‘no’, but the word won’t come out. You want to be a team player. You want to be well-liked, seen as professional. But you already have too much on your plate and tonight’s second shift is looming. How much more can you take?

There are effective ways to say ‘no’ in a tone that respects both the person asking and your own needs. By saying ‘no’ to what’s in front of you, you are more firmly saying ‘yes’ to the projects and people you’ve already committed to. But before we jump into the other benefits to saying ‘no’, let’s explore why we have such an ambivalent relationship with the word to begin with.

Know that you’re not a masochist. Humans are hardwired to say ‘yes’. Our more primitive forebears learned to give a little extra, because they needed to live, hunt and work together in order to survive. If you were perceived as uncooperative, you would be kicked out of your group and left to starve–literally.

Women, especially, are socialized to serve the needs of others before our own. We are praised for being natural multitaskers, but only because traditional gender roles have forced us into it. As Natalie Lue, author of “The Joy of Saying No” explains, women are quick to agree because, “We’re afraid of confrontation. We are afraid of being abandoned, rejected. We have to understand, as women we’ve been taught everybody else’s approval matters more than what we think of ourselves.”

This is quite different from how men are socialized around the word ‘no’. According to Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University, women need to think about saying ‘no’ as a right, rather than as a privilege.

Aside from the obvious benefit of helping you avoid burnout, learning when and how to say ‘no’ can be very empowering for you and those around you. Most importantly, it can actually demonstrate just how seriously you take your responsibilities. “It’s important to say no at work because it earns you respect,” states Eileen Carey, CEO of Glassbreakers. ”If you aren’t getting paid to do something and the task will take away time from accomplishing what you are paid to do, saying no demonstrates your commitment to your role and the value of your time.”

Here’s some advice from Dina Denham Smith, a senior executive coach, on how to more confidently make and execute the decision to say ‘no’.

  1. Be clear about what you value and how you spend your time. Assess which projects and deadlines you most need to focus on. You also have to make time for self-care and a personal life. Once you know your priorities, lock them into your calendar so that you have a clear portrait of just how much “extra” time you have.
  2. Identify the costs of saying yes by asking yourself important questions like “what’s in this for me?”, “do I have the bandwidth?” and “what will I have to give up in order to make this happen?” If there are no benefits to taking on an additional task, it’s okay to be selfish and pass on the opportunity.
  3. Get comfortable with saying the word. Be direct, be courteous, be assertive. Practice in front of the mirror. Offer other resources who may be available. Use your ‘no’ as an opportunity to highlight your talent, strength and problem-solving skills.

We don’t like saying ‘no’ because we don’t want to be perceived as mean or unable to handle pressure. If we want to change our mindset about saying ‘no’, we must first believe that we are worthy of having clear boundaries and respect. Once that happens, it gets easier and easier every time.

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Author profile

Adriana Palanca


Adriana is a Montreal-based writer with 20+ years of experience in storytelling. Her many hats have included advertising copywriter/creative director, creative writing teacher, writing coach, podcaster and blogger. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, a memoir about growing up Italo-Canadian, and random poems that may one day take plausible shape.