Release the Guilt: Learn to Say No With Confidence
January 23, 2017 | Business and Careers
As the mother of two young boys, I’ve often felt pressure to compete with other moms, especially the ones who bring Pinterest to life—throwing bang-up children’s birthday parties, for example, with elaborate decorations and desserts. That kind of thing is not my strength. So I know that if I tried to make it happen, I’d end up getting frustrated (because I’m not very good at party planning) and resentful of the time I spent trying to “keep up with the virtual Joneses” instead of doing something that’s more fulfilling to me personally.
So I’m learning to say no to some things, so I can say yes to the things I really care about.
As an example, reading with my children is one thing that’s important to me, so I’ve made a commitment to being home at bedtime so we can read together. I try to hold on to that success and forgive myself for not making great cupcakes.
It’s an approach that’s valid in the workplace, too, although saying no can be more challenging at work because your performance goals are often set by someone else. But that’s what leadership is all about: having the confidence to say no so you have the ability to say yes.
At work and at home, there are three things I’ve learned that help me say no without feeling guilty.
Understand why you’re saying no. Here’s a conversation I’ve had more than once with one of my sons. “Mommy, are you coming on the field trip with us to the public museum?” I need to say no, and here’s how I frame it: “I work really hard to make sure that on weekends I’m here to play games with you and go to your baseball games and make sure that I have time for you. That means that during the week, I really need to be focused on my team and making sure I’m getting things done at work. I’d love to go with you, but I can’t.” I’m not sure he fully accepts it because he makes me go through it every time. But he doesn’t cry or pout about it. And it makes me feel better to know that I’m clear on why I need to say no.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Say a peer comes to your office and asks you to participate in a big project. You’d like to do it, but you’re already stretched pretty thin. You might feel pressure to say yes even though it will add extra hours to your work schedule. What about a compromise? You don’t necessarily have to be all-in or all-out. Consider this: “I’d like to be able to do this, but I’ll want to think about how I can make time for it. I’ll want to talk to my manager about the trade-offs we need to make in my other work, in my timelines or in the level of detail on other projects in order to make it possible.” You may already know the trade-offs are unacceptable, but at least you’ve taken the request seriously, which will be appreciated. And who knows, maybe your boss will see it differently and take some other things off your plate. It could be a great opportunity!
You have time to make a decision. You don’t have to say yes or no at this moment. I fell into this trap a few years ago when—in the midst of making a job change that required travel—I joined two community boards. I felt strongly about giving back to my community, was given the opportunity to serve and thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing at that stage in my life. But I was wrong. I’d taken on too much, became bitter about having to give up my Monday nights and ended up resigning from one of the boards. In hindsight, I should have said, “Not now,” and re-evaluated the opportunity to give back at a later date.
Experiences like these have helped me understand the importance and value of saying no. In every case, it’s boiled down to this: You won’t earn a merit badge for fitting it all in. In fact, the opposite is true. When you overextend yourself, you and the people around you get shortchanged.
That’s why it’s so important to be discriminating about what’s valid and important to you. When you’re clear on your priorities, you can feel more confident about saying no. And I’ve found it helps if you focus on why you’re saying no, consider a compromise and take time to make the decision that’s right for you.