The 5 keys to saying 'no'

"No" can be the hardest word to say in your professional—and personal—life, but there are ways to turn down requests "like a boss," Emma Seppälä writes in Psychology Today.

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Why it's important to say "no"

Seppälä, who is the science director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project, notes at some point in time we've all reluctantly said "yes" to something that we didn't truly want to do.

She explains that some people will say yes "to impress, to avoid conflict, to be nice, to conform, or because [they] feel helpless," while others are overly compliant because they never learned how to assert their boundaries.

Even so, when we agree to do something we don't believe in, we put our own needs in the back seat—which ultimately can backfire.

The 5 keys to saying 'no'

According to Seppälä, there are five key behaviors that can help you respect your instincts and say "no" when needed.

1. Exercise self-compassion: Research shows that people—particularly women—are more likely to negotiate harder on behalf of a friend or colleague than they are for themselves. That's why, Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, says before you can effectively say no, you first must extend to ourselves the same level of understanding and respect that we show our friends.

If you are still struggling to say no, Seppälä recommends a role playing exercise: imagine that you are instead standing up for a friend. "Bring to mind all the ways in which saying yes might harm your friend's personal goals … and all the ways saying no will help your friend reach their goals," Seppälä writes. "Chances are, you will be able to stand your ground with greater ease and confidence."

2. Take a moment to relieve your stress: Disagreeing with someone can be stressful, and when you're stressed, your emotions can hinder your ability to think rationally. As a result, you might resort to saying yes as the most "obvious and easy" way to escape your discomfort, according to Seppälä.

To prevent your stress from dictating your response, try simply taking a deep breath. Research shows that exhaling slowly can calm your heart rate and blood pressure, and when you're calm, you're more likely to think rationally and regain the ability to assert yourself.

3. Take your time: If you're overwhelmed by a request, it's OK to request more time to respond. "You have a right to deflect, defer, and consider"—even if the other person wants an immediate response, Seppälä writes.

Saying something like "'Let me think about this—I'll get back to you'" will give you time to reflect on your feelings and needs while letting the other person know you aren't ignoring their request, according to Seppälä.

4. Focus on the other party: Another technique for buying yourself time and emotional space is to shift the focus of conversation to the other person, according to Seppälä.

Asking questions, such as "Why do you ask?" or even "Have you had lunch?" can buy you more time to come up with a thoughtful and genuine response, Seppälä writes.

5. When it's time to say 'no,' do it tactfully: When delivering your "no," it's important to be straightforward—but it's also important to speak in a way that puts the other side at ease, according to Seppälä.    

Instead of responding curtly, you can say something like, "As much as I would like to help you, … given my other priorities I wouldn't be able to carry this out in a way that would do you justice."

According to Seppälä, saying no graciously "models a way of being that is profoundly respectful of oneself and others, because it is honest."

"While they might not like your no," she concludes, "they will be grateful, over time, to know where they stand" (Seppälä, Psychology Today, 11/1/18).

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