Every day in my work I encounter people who are terrified of saying one small word: No. And not always to large things either—to things as small as whether to pick up the phone when they’re in the middle of an important one-on-one conversation with a spouse, or whether to speak up when a taxicab driver is taking an undesirable route to a destination. In the workplace, the inability to say no can take on epic proportions over time. Some examples I’ve seen include executives who have kept their mouths shut when a boss suddenly asked them to work late on the night of a parent’s 70th birthday party, attorneys passively agreeing to a cross-country work trip that falls in the middle of a child’s spring break, and middle managers who literally hang up on their coach in the middle of a coaching call because their boss buzzes through demanding to know where the stapler next to the office printer has gone (yes, this has happened!). Each time, my clients know they should say no, but do not.
The inability to say no can have devastating consequences on our daily lives and on our desire to maintain boundaries around what matters most. Failing to say no when we want to is also a literal self-silencing—a relinquishing of one’s voice in life and on the job. Over time, each silence, each refusal to say no when we know we want or need to, chips away at our confidence and our self-worth. In the long run, it results in our own needs coming dead last to those of our job and those of others who seek to cross our boundaries in favor of meeting their own needs. Failing to say no when you know you need to is incredibly disempowering: you are shutting down your agency, your will and your own needs so that others may take what they like from you when they like it.
So why do people fail to say no when they want to? I’ve heard a legion of excuses on this one. A few that have recently tumbled from the mouths of my clients include: my boss will fire me if I don’t answer the phone the instant he calls; I will lose that important (but threatening) client if I don’t meet with him on the Friday night of my kid’s recital; my team can’t function without me when I’m on vacation; I can’t trust anyone to do the job as well as I can, so why should I bother delegating; no one does the job better than me so I can’t say no to doing secretarial work on top of my managerial responsibilities. Forgive me, but I’m going to call BS on all of these.
At bottom, what an inability to say no really comes down to is FEAR: fear of speaking up for yourself, fear that people will not like you if you do, fear that your values will be disregarded (so you disregard them first by staying silent), fear of conflict, even fear of your own empowerment and authority (because then what?!). And don’t get me wrong, I understand how incapacitating that fear can be when it becomes the habitual emotion of your working life (an all-nighter I spent writing a brief instead of attending a close friend’s birthday party immediately springs to mind). But ask yourself this: which is worse? Hating yourself and your life because you put your needs and wants last, or being afraid for a few minutes before saying no, holding fast to your boundaries, and then getting what you want and need to make your life enjoyable and balanced?
When fear has incapacitated you for a long time, it can take some work to get past it. Some coaches call this “pushing through the terror field.” In my work with high-performing executives, we often have to go through a training process to get through the initial stages of utter panic about the infamous two-letter word. For instance, I’ve been known to give homework assignments to clients mandating that they say no in some context at least three times a day for a week. Often, we start very small: say no (politely and with grace) to the second or third drink you know you shouldn’t have on a work night even when your companion is nagging you to have another. Say no (politely and with grace) to the friend who wants to go out for dinner when you’d rather stay home and rest. Allow that phone call to ring through to voicemail so that you can complete the task you’re working on before returning the call at a more convenient time. Flex that No muscle. Each time it will become easier. Each time you may be shocked that your feared consequence from saying no fails to actually manifest.
Next, we move on to the larger issues: no more answering phone calls from your boss after 8 p.m., for instance. No more answering the work cell phone on weekends. Then, we go even bigger: saying no (again, politely and with grace) to the invitation to attend a meaningless work function that impedes on your time with your family. Establishing a vacation plan that means you don’t actually have to work the entire time—imagine that! When carefully executed in proportion to the actual (not imagined) expectations of the particular work environment, the rewards that come from these steps are priceless, and begin to repattern a lifetime of theories and fear that have prevented my clients from standing up for themselves.
And scary though it may seem, I’ll let you in on a secret: when you start to re-establish boundaries in this fashion—again, provided you do it politely and with grace—you will begin to train those around you who would otherwise cross your boundaries with impunity to start to respect you again. You may even be amazed by how fast others adjust to your new way of doing things. Best of all, you will start to get your life back.
And for the skeptics who still think this is impossible in their place of work? Have a look around you at your colleagues. Way back when, I believed I might be fired for failing to check my blackberry 24/7 when I was with family, to the point that my father threatened to throw my blackberry into the fireplace on Christmas Day as I sat pecking away it while my siblings opened presents. Shortly thereafter, my coach asked me to look around my office for evidence that my excuse for failing to say no to the blackberry might not actually be grounded in reality. It turned out that I didn’t have to look far. One floor up from me at my law firm sat a senior partner who almost never checked his blackberry after leaving the office for the day, on the grounds that family time was private time and he valued his time with his kids above all. Occasionally, he would briefly turn on his blackberry once a night—just before bed, for only five minutes and without replying to anything not severely urgent—to make sure no crisis had developed on an important matter. Other than that, however, it was no dice. And it turned out that this had been his strategy throughout his entire career, back from when he was the lowliest of junior associates. The consequence? He was one of the highest paid partners in the firm, had an impeccable work/life balance and no one ever bothered him at night.
Have a look around you, and I guarantee you will find others saying no in favor of maintaining a healthy balance in life. Take them as your role models. Begin to flex your No muscle, and you will find that your boundaries start to become solid once more. The fundamental message is this: YOU decide what works for you in your life. Stand up for it, and others will respect you for that. Say no from a place of empowerment and with grace, and just watch how your world falls in to line.
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