I have a friend who has a problem saying “no.” She’s smart, organized, and helpful, which is a sure recipe for burnout if not managed carefully. My friend works hard, probably harder than she has to, thanks to the extra projects she takes on that are technically someone else’s problem. Being the go-to girl gets to be exhausting, but it’s a hard habit to give up.
Her birthday’s not until August, but here’s an early present: the gift of “no” without an actual “no,” thanks to a great post by Scott Eblin. If you have trouble delivering a simple “no,” here are some alternatives.
Yes, but. Scott Eblin says that adding conditions to your “yes” will help you manage your energy better and get you into the habit of taking charge of your time and your workflow. Here are his suggestions.
- Yes, but with these conditions. – This one helps in setting parameters and boundaries.
- Yes, but not now. – This one is about prioritizing the request against other commitments.
- Yes, but not me. – This is the one to use when someone on your team is better suited to follow through.
Tell me more. This is a great response for many discussions, including ones that feel confrontational. “Tell me more” allows you to explore the ask before committing to yes, and helps you estimate how much time and energy you’ll need to commit to the project. You can also ask “why now?” It’s a variation on “yes, but not now.”
Delegation is always another option; Eblin calls this one “Yes, but not me” – suggesting someone else on our team or an up-and-comer who would love the chance to prove herself.
I have sometimes used this technique to deflect assignments that felt like subtle (and perhaps unintentional) sexism in the workplace. “I agree that taking notes (or ordering lunch in, setting out coffee, or any other hosting gesture) will make it a better planning session. Why don’t we ask John to handle that?” If you’re feeling doubtful, track the nice-to-have hosting gestures in meetings you attend for six months. How many of them are assigned to or performed by the women on a team, no matter how high their rank?
Finally, No, but. This is the best compromise between yes and no. Eblin suggests these scripts:
- No, but here’s what I can do. – This one sets you up to make an offer of help that’s within your range of available resources.
- No, but what if we tried this instead? – This response protects your boundaries while providing some alternatives that you could support and participate in.
And my favorite:
- No, but I wish you the best. Eblin says: “Sometimes, there’s nothing more you can do than to offer your good will and best wishes. It’s way better to do that than to commit yourself to something that you really don’t have the bandwidth to follow through on.”
If you’re exhausted and burnt out, you’ll never be able to perform at your best. You’ll also never be considered for promotions or plum assignments if you look frazzled and maxed out all the time. Learning to say no without actually saying a bald “no” is an art form. An art form that can make your job – and your life – easier and more productive.