As I have been forging along on my saying-no journey frankly I have received some absolutist advice and feedback: I should just be saying no flat-out, and if I wasn’t saying no quickly and completely I wasn’t REALLY saying no. (And again, in these posts I am primarily thinking about the extra-work-outside-of-work situations: professional committees, freelance training, webinar presenting, teaching, reviewing, blogging…not the situations that involve managing work levels on the job.)
Well, just like a robust anti-drug policy is a little more nuanced than Nancy Reagan would have us believe (shout out to my fellow lived-through-the-80s readers for whom that reference actually makes sense), I have found that saying no in real life is more complicated than just repeating, “Sorry, I can’t,” every time you are asked to do something.
Although sometimes it isn’t more complicated than that: Saying no sometimes really does look just like not saying yes. (“That’s a great opportunity, but I just can’t take it on right now.”)
Another way to say no is to quit a project or commitment that you have already undertaken. You can do this by not re-upping (“No, I won’t sign on to review grant proposals again this year, thanks, I’ll let someone else have an opportunity to see what it’s like.”) or by quitting before your initial commitments or term is up. (“I realize I said I could write a blog post a month until next August, but in the interim my responsibilities have changed and I won’t be able to submit past this April.”)
Or, maybe you can delegate the responsibility while still overseeing the larger project. This was a major skill for me to learn as a committee chair: I wanted to be pulling my own weight as a committee member, yet sometimes the general chair responsibilities needed to take priority. (“I’ve been chipping away at this report for the steering committee, but I’m falling way behind. I need to ask two of you to take it on from here.”)
If you’re not in a position to delegate, then plain old asking for help from colleagues or friends is an option, too. (“I said I would write this report for the steering committee, but I am so stuck. Do you have an hour to talk through the main points with me or read a very rough draft?” or “I said I would present this webinar but I’ve realized it’s too much work. Would you be able to partner with me on it?”) In this case your no is not so much “I can’t do it,” as it is “I can’t do it by myself.”
Sometimes your no isn’t so much a no as it is a “not now but later.” If someone has asked you to do something and you have a choice of deadline (maybe you need to take a turn writing minutes for a meeting or arranging a monthly speaker) don’t waffle and say “Oh, I can do it whenever.” Say, “I can’t do it next month, but put me down for September.” Or, if you’ve been approached for an opportunity you don’t have time for, you could say, “I can’t do it this year, but I would love it if you kept me in mind for next year!” Don’t say that unless you mean it, then put it on your calendar in case they do call back, you have that block free.
Another “later” type of no is rescheduling a current commitment. You’ve already said you could do it at a certain time, but now you are worried about fitting everything in. Take a deep breath and ask if you can reschedule. Sometimes it’s not possible, but sometimes everyone will be happier about having a better webinar/article/presentation at a different time than a not-so-great product at the original time.
What other ways are there for saying no?
Further reading–what are your suggestions?