Saying No

Saying “no” doesn’t come naturally to me. Whenever people ask me for favors, meetings, presentations, recommendations, etc., I often accede. I don’t like letting people down. I like being liked. Over time, I’ve realized it’s a pathology.

I feel a weird mix of excitement and dread when I get a request. Excitement to know people want my help and dread because deep down I know that I shouldn’t take on the ask — and I must let them know. So much easier to go along with it!

There’s also FOMO. Perhaps this presentation leads to a breakthrough concept, opens the door to a relationship with a new client, or whatever. It won’t be that much work, will it? I’m already 75% of the way there. Why not do it, just in case?

Like I said, a pathology.

Time is limited. When I say “yes” to every meeting or keynote request that comes my way, my calendar gets clogged with activities that are a high priority for someone else at the expense of those that matter to me. Alas, time is zero-sum.

Words matter. If I endorse anyone or anything that requests it, each endorsement is worth less. Compulsory endorsements start to crowd out heartfelt ones, and eventually, none of them are worth much. The value of my opinions gets diluted.

Then there’s context switching. I can only keep so many plates spinning without dropping any of them. There’s a high cost to changing projects. I could take on more than I do, but not without doing a half-assed job on some of them.

I know all this and still say “yes” to lots more than I should. As a result, I often find myself asking, “why am I doing this?” — resenting both the project and myself for not having drawn a clear line.

So, I’m practicing saying “no” more. It still feels like I’m doing something wrong. I’m alleviating the dread by re-framing incoming requests. Rather than seeing them as obligations, I’m thinking of them as opportunities to flex the “no” muscle.

The trick is doing so kindly and helpfully. The person has reached out with good intentions. They have a high opinion of me if they’re asking for help. There’s no reason to be rude.

I want to be transparent about my reasons. It’s ok to say, “I have to do other things that are a higher priority for me,” or “I can’t vouch for this because I don’t have enough experience with it.” I appreciate it when people do this for me.

All of it takes practice, and practice requires repetition. So, now I see incoming requests as an opportunity for another rep. Every time I turn something down, I do it a little better, judging by the replies I get. I also feel less bad about it.

So, if I’ve said “no” to you recently, know that I’m grateful. I appreciate you’ve thought highly enough of me to ask for my time/opinion/validation. I feel bad for having turned you down — but a little less so than before. Your request helped.