4 Ways to Say No Without Saying No — Lionesses of Africa

by Lori Milner

Saying no is challenging; most of us dread it because it questions our identity as being a good person. We fear saying no because we are afraid people won’t like us or will let them down and disappoint them. We attach so much guilt and dread to this little word that we end up giving away our yes too quickly.

You know you are swamped with deadlines, yet you agree to just one ‘small’ request. When you multiply these seemingly innocent tasks over a week, you are left with crumbs while everyone else gets the best of you.

Saying no is critical not only to protect your boundaries but your reputation too. It sounds counter-intuitive because you fear that saying no will make you come across as unhelpful, but if you say yes to too many things, you will begin to sacrifice quality for quantity.

If you drop the ball on delivering a task and the quality is not your usual standard, this is what you are remembered for. In the moment, no one cares that your last ten proposals were world-class.

Clearly, we know saying no is a challenge, but what if you didn’t have to say the word no. What if there was a different way to communicate the message with the same result? Here are four ways you can say no to someone without actually having to use the word no:

Ask for the actual deadline.

When someone asks you to do something, the A-type superstar in you wants to show this person how incredible you are, and you commit to getting it done the next day.

Instead of this default reaction, you can ask this person ‘when is the absolute latest you need this done by? What is the actual deadline for this?’

You assumed it was tomorrow, but it is most likely in a few days or even the following week. Of course, there will be times when the deadline is urgent, but you need to move away from assuming everything is urgent.

This simple question is the difference between creating days you look forward to versus days you want to escape from.

Manage expectations, not time.

When you receive a request, change your default yes to this phrase ‘Let me check my calendar, and I’ll get back to you’.

This magic phrase allows you to insert a mental pause button. Now you can genuinely look at your schedule and assess what commitments you presently have.

Rather than say no, you can respond by saying, ‘currently, my calendar is swamped until Monday. Would Tuesday morning work for you?

Again, this is not a direct no but allows you to put your priorities first. Of course, if there is an urgent deadline, you make a plan and show up, but the point is to move you away from defaulting to giving away your yes too quickly without the proper information.

When you begin to manage expectations rather than time, you become the master of your calendar.

Offer an alternative.

I am not immune to wanting to please people, but I have learnt that I don’t commit to something at the expense of my other projects or peace of mind.

When I am asked to speak on topics not entirely within my field of expertise, I thank them for the invitation and respond by suggesting other people who will do a far better job in this area than I could.

The version of myself, even two years ago, would have agreed and then spent hours researching this new topic out of the desire to please them. Ultimately I was stressed and resented the work because I was too afraid of missing out on what I perceived as a fantastic opportunity.

It was never a genuine opportunity; it was an opportunity cost. The time spent building something that was not my expertise took away hours of focusing on my passion projects.

If you receive a request, can you respond by saying, ‘I don’t have the capacity now, but here is another person, a book, a website, a tool or a resource that can assist you’?

You don’t always need to give your time; if you can help this person solve their problem with another means, you are being a contribution and that’s the intent behind your ‘yes’.

Put the ball in their court.

What happens when your boss or someone senior makes a request? Rather than default to yes, how about saying something like this:

‘Currently, I am working on these three tasks. What is the priority for you in terms of importance? Where would you like me to focus first?’

In this way, you are making it abundantly clear that you are busy, and now the ball is in their court to decide where your time is best spent. When you respond with this phrase, you articulate that one of these projects needs to lose focus to make space for this new addition. They can decide where your time is best spent.

Final thoughts.

 Not everything is urgent, and not all tasks are created equally.

The ability to say no will change your life dramatically because you are no longer the victim of your calendar but the architect of it.

The key to managing anxiety is exposure.

It will feel so uncomfortable at first, and you will beat yourself up about what an awful person you are. But once you see that the world did not end and this person still respects you, you will begin to do it with ease.

You get what you tolerate. If you enjoy being the ‘yes’ person and agreeing to every request that comes in, ask yourself, what is it costing you?

My favourite quote is ‘failure to plan on your part should not constitute an emergency on mine’. You know this person, they come to you at the last minute and make their problem yours even though they have probably known about the request for the last two weeks.

Perhaps you can check in with them weekly and ask in advance – is there anything you will need from me in the next two weeks? Can your ability to plan help them to look ahead rather than land you in chaos and crisis? When people see you will not drop everything for them at the last minute, they will change their behaviour and plan.

Once you give yourself permission to put your life’s work first, you will open up space for the things that truly matter. In the words of Stephen Covey:

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”

Here’s to owning your no,

Warm wishes,


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