Saying no is scary.
But sometimes, you have to learn how, for your sanity and productivity. Saying no to the right things means you can say yes to what matters. You have to take control. No one else will do it for you.
It’s not surprising we don’t know how. Why would our job or school teach how to say no? They want us to say yes.
I’ve been subject to my fair share of unreasonable “requests” at work. We all have. Some common demands:
- “I’ll need these revisions by Sunday night” (the unreasonable timeframe).
- “This has to get done by tomorrow morning” (the ever-popular fake deadline).
- The fun late-night unnecessary conference call (making you work just because someone else is).
Learn how to say no at work – even when you feel anxious or scared.
A. Observe the Situation
Ensure you’re reacting to something that is truly unreasonable. You know what’s unreasonable because of your experience. Different places have different requirements (like “face time”). Trust your judgment, and don’t let them gaslight you by thinking something unreasonable is totally normal.
And don’t let yourself stray too far down the path. It’s far too easy to give in to each individual demand because hey, it’s only once. Then suddenly it’s a year later, and you’ve given in every time. In the aggregate, the demands are unreasonable.
Once you’ve determined that something’s unreasonable (again: trust yourself), it’s time to observe yourself before you say no.
B. Observe Yourself
I wish I wasn’t scared to say no, but I am sometimes. Most times, in fact.
Trying to ignore my fear just makes it worse, like I know there’s a predator behind me but I can’t turn around. So don’t attempt to control it. That will cause it to fight back, like a wild animal. (And if the fear wins, you’ll feel even worse than you did before.) Instead, just observe it.
First, Observe your physical state. Take 20 seconds to quickly scan your body from head to toe. Do you feel tension anywhere, like your face or shoulders? Is your breathing shallow or deep?
Second, observe your emotions. Can you name them? Don’t dwell on them, just lightly touch them, and keep breathing.
You’re probably uncomfortable. That’s okay. Keep breathing.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.
2. Say No
A. What to Say
I mean that literally: say the word “no.” Not “I’m sorry, but…” Not “I’d love to, but…” These are weak, passive-aggressive ways to say no, and they mean the same thing.
Besides, “no” isn’t bad. It’s firm but not nasty. You don’t need to feel guilty about it (even though I often do).
“No, I can’t this time.” Short, sweet, and to the point. And it’s easy to remember if you’re feeling anxious or angry.
Don’t apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong.
B. Ditch the Details
You may be tempted to explain your refusal. Don’t! Stumbling over a million justifications weakens your message. It can also make it sound like you’re lying.
Also, giving reasons allows someone to challenge those reasons. Don’t get into a debate. Just say no and offer little else.
C. The Broken Record
This is probably an unusual situation, especially in a law firm. People are supposed to kill themselves working, right? So they may feel emotional and challenge you. They want to win.
But they can’t win if you don’t play the game. That’s the beauty of the broken record. You’ve said no. If they challenge you, repeat yourself. You’re a broken record, and you’re stuck on “No, I can’t this time.”
The broken record also makes it easier to respond in an anxiety-provoking situation because you don’t have to remember too much.
This isn’t a power play, and it’s not about making the other person feel bad or weak. You simply have different priorities and you’re standing up for yours. Keep breathing.
3. Observation (Again)
Finally, objectively observe the results. If you’ve said no and stuck to it, you now get to say yes to something you prioritize. But first, pause for a minute.
First, how do you feel? You might feel flustered or even a little high. That’s fine and completely normal. How is your breathing? Deep or shallow? What about tension in your shoulders? Take another 20 seconds to breath in deeply. Inhale, count to four; exhale, count to four.
Second, what were the consequences? They might be much less than you expected. Or maybe you made someone angry. That’s okay. Try to distance yourself from the situation. Next week, will this matter? Next month? Next year? I imagine the answer is no.
Congratulations on saying no. I don’t say that lightly: I know it can be an extremely stressful experience. But now you know you can do it, and you’re equipped with the script to do it again.
I’ve followed this three-step process myself.
It was 10:00 pm. I had just finished revisions on a merger agreement. The merger itself wasn’t happening for a few weeks, so I started packing up to go home.
My email dinged. The senior associate: “Can you stick around for a conference call?”
I could stick around, yes. But I certainly didn’t want to.
It was another pointless “status update” call, with nothing for me to do but sit there and look interested. I knew it wasn’t important.
So I sat in my office chair for a few seconds, observing myself. It was shallow and quick. My shoulders and neck were coiled and tense. I was scowling without realizing it. I was angry to get the request, and anxious about refusing.
I called him back: “No, I can’t this time.” Clearly the incorrect answer. I was tapping my foot up and down because I was so nervous.
A few beats of silence, then an indignant, “Why not?”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t this time. I hope it goes well.” He asked again, and I said the same thing.
“Hmm, okay, well, have a good night, I guess.” Snide, resentful tone. But that’s okay. It’s not my priority.
As I walked to the elevator bank, I was almost shaking. I was nervous, and happy, and relieved, somehow all at the same time. I felt a small sliver of control over my life.
The consequences? The next day, I came into the office and spent five minutes being updated about what happened on the call (nothing – how shocking!). And I slept better that night.