Saying no vs. yes to work that dilutes our performance can feel tricky; but has never been more vital.

Why and How We Ought to Say ‘No’

Exhausting workloads and surviving layoffs can bring dread, worry — even fear. But if we’re mental fitness practitioners, we know: A gift and opportunity always exists.

Might this firehose of work motivate us to find a new or different career? Launch our business? Or exercise saying no vs. yes to what exceeds what we’re wanting to do and/or feel capable of? For clarity, I’m not speaking to the work within our description. The focus here is the extra, unexpected work — the favors — well exceeding our scope and jeopardizing the work aligned with our passions and/or that others evaluate us on in our next performance review.

Beaucoup articles exist to show vs. tell us the most successful people (from a career standpoint) often master saying no. But how do we say no vs. yes in ways which look agreeable? In this week’s article we’re finding ways to say no vs. yes in ways which land well with you — and your audience.

Take the Emotions Out. Keep to the Facts

When we say ‘no’ vs. ‘yes’ we often battle life-long habits of accommodating and pleasing others by saying yes to endless requests for help. We often feel cross, resentful — even outraged for doing so, but do so all the same. To avoid all that, and to help feel empowered to say no, try:

  • Taking the emotions out.
  • Grounding and getting peaceful.
  • Stating factually why the task is impossible. E.G. Given my deadlines today, I’m already full up. Or, Having just said yes to earlier tasks, I must now focus on my core responsibilities at hand.

Understand What’s Hard — and What’s the Fear?

To feel more comfortable with saying no, get clear on what’s behind the fear. When I ask this question, I hear from the field a fear of:

  • Looking or seeming useless and a candidate for the axe (especially true during hostile takeovers, mergers, or with new, demanding bosses)
  • Seeming incompetent and wanting to hide what we don’t know
  • Looking like we can’t manage our time, or that we’re above helping others, or that we’re selfish and self-serving

Whatever the fear, challenge its credibility. And if it does feel realistic, looking back at this time on my life as my wiser elder self, what would I want to see myself choose? Endless work that depletes and harms me? Or, saying no and caring for myself and the work/people/vision I love?

Offer a New, Lighter Way to Help

We can still seem helpful and like a team player when we offer new ways to help, without doing the request to beholder of the task asked of you. You might offer you’re:

  • Expert at or beholden to something else and therefore not the right person for this work; however, have you thought of this person?
  • Happy to help, but for a constrained time (five minutes — or even 30 minutes) given your deadlines
  • Eager to guide and offer high-level feedback, after the person takes a stab at the first effort.

Whatever you do, empower the person who asks that they’ve got this and although you lack the time/bandwidth/mental real estate to do all they ask, you’re happy to offer small guidance when they’re done

Barter and Negotiate

Another quick fix: have your current workflow typed up and handy. When someone higher up asks for you to do extra, reply you’re happy to do so; but which on your list of deliverables (today, this week, this month) can wait or go to someone else? (You might add you’re worried about disastrous errors given the tight timelines.) This technique has done wonders for many I coach because it says you’re:

  • Amicable and organized
  • Collaborative and open
  • Reasonable, but firm

The receiver of your response understands that for you to say yes — you’ll need help with something else already on your list or something needs to go. And you’re worried about quality work and efficiency above all.

Follow Up and Document

Given that many of us have partial or selective hearing, I do recommend following up on whatever agreement comes next with a written communication everyone signs off on. This step will help avoid cross-sounding requests for the work you’ve said no to.

Consider any additional request a work order of sorts. You’ll need to document the request to ensure you understand the scope and any flexible and moved deadlines with other deliverables.

Notice Repeated Requests and Offer Help En Masse

If you’ve noticed ongoing requests for help from multiple divisions, learn from any patterns. You may possess some expertise multiple folks seek. If so, you might type it all up and store the guidance somewhere central you can then point to with the next request.

Dorie Clark, communications coach and author of multiple leadership books, including The Long Game, suggests noticing what advice or help others seek from you. When a pattern exists, provide a thought leadership article on that topic — given so many people seek this insight. Or, alternatively, host a lunch and learn or a happy hour online and invite many. There you can share the wisdom En masse as a one-shot offering. You’re off the hook, you’re helpful, and you’ve freed yourself up for the work you love, do best, and that feels more aligned with your True North. My podcast interview with Dorie Clark lives here.

I’ve brought up ways to say No this week because many coachees fear their job stability rests on them saying yes to everything. And yet, overwhelm, anxiety, and diluted focus leads to errors, reduced confidence, and less presence during these uncertain times.

Through this lens, I think often of a jewelry maker, Mary Ann Scherr, I had the pleasure of interviewing years ago for NC State University. Scherr made jewelry for world leaders and for most of the US presidents in her day, including J.F. Kennedy — and his wife as well. When I asked her youthful secret, looking and sounding amazing in her 80s, she replied: “I never say yes to something I don’t want to do.” Scherr has since passed; but I feel her wisdom today.

Find your strength. Say no, vs. yes, to anything that feels extremely unreasonable and/or that hurts you, your work, and those you serve. You’ll feel better, stronger, and learn some leadership skills, too.

Debbi Gardiner McCullough coaches and trains immigrant leaders to become more confident, concise, and authentic communicators. From Wisconsin, she owns and runs Hanging Rock Coaching and serves as a communication effectiveness fellow coach to leaders all over the globe with BetterUp.

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