Saying ‘yes’ to others when you really want to—and should--say ‘no’ can ultimately get in the way of your career success and satisfaction. Here are some ways to navigate the tension between asserting your needs and supporting others' interests too.
A few years back, I was asked to lead a fundraising effort for one of my children’s classes at their new school. Now there are a lot of parent volunteer activities I’d willingly take on and be really good at, but asking for monetary donations is not on that list. Yet, I agreed to do it anyway. I reasoned I was just doing my part to help support their school – right? However, every time I had to ask parents for money, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread and drain. It’s probably no surprise the funds raised through my efforts were embarrassingly one of the lowest that year.
So why did I agree to do something I knew wasn’t a good fit for me? Well partly, I felt pressure as a new parent at the school to demonstrate my commitment and support. But truth be told, I was also afraid refusing to take on this role would cause other parents to judge me and our family at a new school where I desperately wanted to fit in and be accepted.
Why It’s So Hard to Say ‘No’
Can you relate? If so, know that difficulty in saying ‘no’ is a common problem for many of us, especially women leaders, because it runs counter to how we were raised. As young girls, we were socialized to support and not disappoint others, even if it meant putting other’s needs ahead of our own. Our desire to please others, avoid confrontation, and wanting to fit in often causes us to say ‘yes’ when we really want and need to say ‘no’.
‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble. Mahatma Gandhi
Difficulty setting healthy boundaries around our needs and those of others can ultimately get in the way of our career success and satisfaction. We take on work that doesn’t support or serve our goals. We participate in activities that don’t interest us. We take on others' priorities and burdens. Ultimately, this drains us of the time, energy, and resources we need for the things that matter most to us.
How to Assert Your ‘No’ More Effectively
Saying ‘no’ may be one of the most critical assertiveness skills you can develop in your career. The truth is, you can’t really say ‘yes’ to what is most important unless you can say ‘no’ to asks that don’t serve you. Here are some ways to assert your own needs, while supporting others’ interests too.
1. Prioritize and Respect Your Own Needs
Anna’s supervisor asked her to work through the weekend on an important project. Normally she would be willing to do so, but she had already made special plans for the weekend that couldn’t be changed. She wants to say ‘no,’ but it's the boss making the request. So, she doesn’t feel she has a choice, especially with her promotion review right around the corner.
How can Anna say ‘no’ without making her boss angry or jeopardizing her career? The best approach here is to be honest (and unapologetic) about her conflict, while also reinforcing her commitment to the project’s success. While she may feel pressure to acquiesce out of fear of her boss’ reaction, it’s also important she establish and have respect for her own boundaries so others will too. Self-advocacy is about valuing and prioritizing one’s own needs as much as those of others:
“Unfortunately, I can’t work over the weekend because of a previous commitment. But I know this project is important and I am committed to its success. If necessary, I can work a little later during the week to help us achieve this goal.”
2. Support Others' (Underlying) Interests
Patricia’s colleague asked her to serve on a charitable committee she is leading. Patricia believes the cause is a good one, but not one she is particularly passionate about. She wants to decline the request, but feels guilty about not supporting her colleague.
How can Patricia assert her preferences without feeling guilty or disappointing her colleague? One way to overcome this is to follow her ‘no’ to the specific request with a ‘yes’ that supports her colleague’s underlying interests. So, while Patricia asserts her preference to not serve on this committee herself, she can offer her support in other ways such as making a small donation or recommending someone else:
“I think it’s great you are taking a lead in support of this effort, but I don’t feel a similar calling to serve in this way. However, I’d love to refer another colleague who I think would love the opportunity and is a better fit for this role.”
3. Provide Others a Choice
Tina’s client is demanding a much shorter deadline than what was initially agreed upon. Tina knows the timeline change is unrealistic and will likely cause the team heightened stress, with the quality of the work suffering as a result. But it’s one of her key clients and she is concerned saying ‘no’ will adversely affect their relationship and future business opportunities.
How can Tina advocate for her team and still keep the client happy? The key here is to reframe this as a decision the client must make about what is most important. By providing this as a choice, the client will need to realize Tina’s ability to say ‘yes’ to the client's demand may require saying ‘no’ to something else:
“I suggest we stick to the previously agreed-to timeframe to ensure we provide your company with the same high level of service you’ve come to expect from our team. We could certainly do our utmost to meet the accelerated deadline, but the quality of the results of our work and the level of added risk to the project need to be considered. What is your preference?”
4. Establish Criteria for Saying ‘Yes’
Wanda is a bilingual attorney who is often asked to help with translation needs outside her immigration practice. She has difficulty saying ‘no’ because she wants to be seen as a team player within her firm. But the frequent requests create additional non-billable work for her, which restricts her opportunities to work on other matters that are important to her career - not to mention it also casts her identify and value as a translator as opposed to an attorney.
So how can Wanda be supportive of her team and also prioritize her own needs? Rather than evaluating each request separately, she should establish criteria for saying ‘yes’ to others’ requests. For example, if Wanda creates a rule that she provides no more than 2 hours of non-billable translation work per month, she should decline additional requests on the basis they exceed this pre-established limit:
“I’ve already reached my capacity this month for this type of non-billable work, but perhaps I can help you next time if I have capacity to do so.”
Do You Have Difficulty Saying ‘No’?
If you have difficulty saying ‘no’ even when you know you should, consider how this lack of self-advocacy may be getting in your own way. A professional coach can help you develop a range of skills related to asserting your interests and learning to communicate your preferences more self-assuredly. This can include learning to say ‘no’ (without fear and guilt), setting boundaries with others, and developing more effective personal negotiation skills to achieve better career outcomes.
If you’d like more information on how I can help you assert your ‘no’ more effectively, please contact me. You are also welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me to learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so you can realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator