The Power of No

Why is it so hard for us to say no sometimes?

Often we fear that saying no to a request will be interpreted as a personal rejection, causing unnecessary friction in our relationship. It's a very common issue that everyone can relate to: Sometimes it is just easier to not rock the boat.

The Wall Street Journal explored this topic, pointing out that simply saying no to another person can feel like a threat to our basic need to belong and be connected to others. This makes sense if you have ever felt a knot in your stomach thinking about saying no to someone's request of your time or energy; it can feel like we are risking something very important if we don't say yes, and that turning them down would cause more trouble than simply acceding to their request.

Dr. Spela Trefalt, a faculty member at Simmons School of Management, has written about professional boundaries and observes that how we try to set limits with others is affected by the nature of the relationship – in other words, by the previous an anticipated future interactions with those individuals. This is something that causes many people significant distress. They imagine that if they start saying no more to people in their lives, then they will lose out on opportunities or relationships, and then be left with an emptier, perhaps more self-centered way of living that goes against their values. People can become stuck between the need to draw a line with someone in their lives and the desire to avoid the imagined bleak future. Leading them to feel that saying no isn't a worthwhile option. Do you struggle with this?

Setting Boundaries

It's important to step back and think about where this difficulty is coming from. Are you making decision to say yes or no in an attempt to pursue positive outcomes that you desire, or to avoid negative consequences that you fear may happen? Oftentimes people feel like they cannot say no because they work hard to avoid conflict or just in general try to keep everyone around them happy. But what winds up happening is that by devoting so much time and effort in keep everyone else happier, you yourself wind up more stressed, sad, and/or frustrated about how much you are doing for everyone else and may even start to resent other people for not appreciating your sacrifices or giving back to you what you need.

But as difficult as it sometimes can be, setting limits with what we do for others is incredibly important and can be beneficial in many aspects of our lives. Saying no allows you to send a message to the other person that you deserve respect and cannot always be there for them at the drop of a hat in the way that they might desire you to be.

Value Yourself First

Saying no allows you to value your time and energy in a way that's not possible if you are continually saying yes to things that people are asking you. Ask yourself: Did I have time this week to take care of everything that I need to do for myself? Was I able to choose how I spent any of my time, even if it meant choosing to not do anything for a few hours or for an entire day?

Another way to look at this is to remember that there is only so much time in the day. We each have any number of roles to balance in our lives: employee, boss, colleague, spouse/partner, sibling, student, friend, neighbor and community member, to name a few possibilities. But if we say "yes" too often in all of these different roles, we would be unable to be our best at any of them.

Work-Life Balance

In their research on work-life balance, business school professors Chris Higgins and Linda Duxburt have highlighted various employment trends that may increase our anxiety about saying no: e.g., downsizing (leaving fewer people to do more work), a culture of "hours" (feeling pressured to work long hours in order to be successful), and technology advancements (making us accessible, and therefore accountable, around the clock, everywhere). All of these factors impact our work-life balance. And sadly, the reactions of many are to work harder, cut down on outside activities, or to sleep less. When we allow work to blur the boundaries of our personal lives, we pay the price. For example, one study showed that people who were contacted by their job outside of normal business hours reported more health concerns than people who were not.

For those who find difficulty in saying no to others, it can be useful to look to people who are able to do so with ease and credit some of their success in life to this ability. Kristin Muhlner, CEO of the social media monitoring company newBrandAnalytics as well as a wife and mom, is an example of someone that has no problem turning down requests. In an interview with Fast Company, Kristin credits her success to her knack of frequently saying no, in both her personal and professional life:

If you’re the person who says yes to every project, that’s a dangerous mentality to get into. Let’s not talk about work-life balance: Let’s just talk about living, about making great choices both at work and home.

Saying no can be viewed as a skill, and any skills can be developed with careful attention and practice.