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Why saying “no” means success and how to do it with grace

Do you wish you could say “no” gracefully every time it feels like the right thing to do?

If you have said to yourself, or your family and friends, “I need to get better at saying no,” you are definitely not alone. This is fairly common. Especially among women.

Billionaire Warren Buffett once shared a secret to his success:

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.

Working with leaders since 2006, I’ve been surprised by how many people have confessed that they need to do better with saying no. On the surface, they are strong, capable go-getters making things happen. However, once we start looking at existing habits that affect their overall effectiveness and wellbeing, this is often an area where they need help.

Can you relate?

As a busy leader making things happen, you are keenly aware how it feels when you have too many obligations. This is because YOU are essentially a finite resource. You need sleep. You cannot be in two places at once and you can’t focus when you have 12 things coming at you simultaneously.

However… Sometimes you don’t want to say no because you want to be agreeable, you don’t want to let someone down, or you don’t know how to say no politely in the moment. But then, after a few hours or days you remember that you are supposed to keep your own needs in mind so you can be at your best. Oops.

Having too many obligations can lead to feeling scattered, time-crunched, burned out, and worse.

The negative effects of not saying no can be detrimental and pervasive for you, and for others in your life as well. Let’s take a look… How many of these have you experienced because you didn’t say “no” enough?

  • Exhaustion
  • Foggy thinking or unfocused from so many details to keep track of
  • Overwhelm, maybe showing up as procrastination, or locking up and doing nothing
  • Guilt: feeling bad about not being perfect, or all things to all people
  • Anger at yourself or others
  • Sending mixed signals, such as when you say yes but don’t get round to it
  • Feeling pulled in too many directions
  • Coming across as “flaky” or incompetent when things don’t happen as promised

In addition, everything you say yes to takes your time, energy, and other resources away from something else. This is one reason intentions and goals aren’t met as planned.

It feels so hard to say no sometimes

Are you afraid of letting others down? Or feel like you must take on more than other people to prove yourself? Or maybe it’s specific people you “can’t” say no to. Agreeing to more than you actually/truly want could be because your old conditioning pops up in various ways. 

Depending upon our early-life conditioning and a variety of experiences interacting with others, we may not be fully aware of why we do certain things. Many women fear being seen as selfish, or not as a contributor or team player. We tend to be afraid to disappoint others and worry about being judged as “not good enough” in some way.

For most of us, being female comes with an expectation that we are supposed to serve others, and to keep the peace. You may even consider yourself a people pleaser; you like the satisfaction of helping others and may put your own needs last (or unmet entirely). Have you realized that you often do things in order to be acknowledged or praised? 

There are many reasons why this is so common, but the good news is that you can change it if you want to. 

It’s relatively easy to honor yourself more, and to do so without dishonoring others.

If Liz can do it, so can you. 

Liz is in a senior leadership role at a medium-sized company. She explained to me her long-time working mantra “NEVER say no in business.” I challenged her on this often, perplexed why she feels like she can’t ask a few questions before showing commitment, but she would just silently shake her head and stick to her belief about never saying no. 

This had become her own badge of honor. 

But the reality was, she was the one lumbered with failing projects – or other things described as career-enders – and given additional departments without any extra support, or recognition, or pay. 

Liz was still proud of her ability to say yes to everything, as she had done for decades. But I saw  her very stressed as a result. Mostly, she internalized it and somehow found creative ways to make things work. However, her health was suffering, she drank a lot, she didn’t respect or like the people she worked with… it wasn’t a pretty picture.

She is very intelligent, is a good leader, is a tough negotiator, sees creative opportunities to make additional revenue, and would be an asset to any company! I told her I wanted to see her honor herself more, and I encouraged her to take more control over her work.

The root of the problem

Finally, she admitted how unhappy she was, but had been extremely stubborn on this one point up until recently. She had an irrational belief that asking ANY questions shows resistance and will be seen as uncooperative, or might remind them she is female and might be weaker. However, eventually she agreed that being more comfortable asking clarifying questions and looking at the bigger picture more often would help her be respected even more. 

Like many other women running business, she was holding onto her suffering by thinking she must continually show how strong she is by showing how she can “take it” without complaining… She’s learning to look at the bigger picture, asking questions and pondering ways to honor herself better without being seen as confrontational or difficult, and the best part: she feels much better about herself and her own value. Plus she is able to relax more!

Liz says one of her favorite takeaways from our sessions is: Decisions don’t have to be answered with a solid “yes” or “no”. Life is not black and white. Life is grey! Your ability to honor yourself often resides in the grey, so get creative!

Here are some of my favorite suggestions for those times when you don’t want to say yes but you don’t want to feel bad about letting someone else down or be seen as insensitive. 

My 5 favorite tips to say no without feeling guilty

  1. Before you respond: PAUSE. Don’t be afraid of a little bit of silence while you process their request. Consider the bigger picture. It is completely OK to say, “Let me think about it.”
  2. You do not need to apologize. If you are doing what’s right for you, even if they don’t like the answer, you don’t have to say you’re sorry. This is something I’m really passionate about: NEVER apologize for honoring yourself. EVER. (See also Stop Apologising)
  3. Buy yourself some time by saying something like “let me check.” Answer later if needed. Get permission to let them know your real answer later (and it gives you time to craft a nicely worded response).
  4. Ask Questions; clarity informs your best decision. Ask about what is expected, the time considerations, who else might be a better fit, if it needs to be done at all, or about other creative solutions that might work…
  5. Be kind and courteous. Please do give them a real answer, even if it’s short and sweet. A simple, “No, thank you” works better than avoidance! Not only is silence seen as passive aggressive, it leaves things feeling unclear or unresolved. Even if it’s tiny, this is fodder for guilt and anxiety (which no one needs more of). 

More tips can be found in the Say No chapter of my book Lead With Moxie: Surprising Ways Women Are Creating Success in Business.

Liz realized that life is too precious to give her best self away to projects that weren’t important in the bigger picture. Instead of worrying about how strong and capable she seemed, which was essentially fueled by “Imposter Syndrome,” she learned how to project confidence and professionalism when she asked smart questions and bought herself some time to find a creative way to ask for compromises or to just say no gracefully.

Heather Legge
Verified Coach
Verified for professional standards and commitment to clients. Read more Close

Since 2006, Heather Legge has worked with business owners to help them achieve their vision. You too can develop the productivity habits and leadership skills for business success. Email heather@envisionsuccessinc.com or book a free call with Heather now .

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