Why is saying no so hard?

By Brandon Smith

Saying no can be one of the most difficult and challenging things to ever pass our lips. It’s difficult for two significant reasons:

Reason #1 – We are afraid of disappointing others. We just can’t bare the look in our boss’ eye when we have to tell him / her that we simply can’t do what they are asking. For that matter, we can’t stand that same look in our spouse’s eyes, our parents’ eyes, our friends’ eyes, our children’s eyes, our pets’ eyes, etc…

Reason #2 – We are afraid of rejection. We can’t stomach the idea that the person asking us may never ask us for anything else. What if they have no use for us in the future and choose to never speak to us again? While it sounds absurd, this fear deep down inside each of us is very real.

When to say no

While each of those fears may be very real, there come times when we must face those fears head-on and say   no anyway. Specifically, any of the following are reasons to say   no to the request before you.

You are already ‘full’ – you are at capacity and any slightest thing will push you over the edge. Those of you who remember the TV sitcom Seinfeld from the early 1990s might remember the episode with George’s wallet bursting with everything imaginable. You, like George’s wallet, can’t take even the smallest scrap of extra work without coming apart at the seams.

The probability of failure is high – you can objectively step back and say to yourself, ‘why are they asking me? Don’t they know that I am not likely to do as good of a job as someone else?’  This isn’t about low self-confidence. This is an honest assessment of what you are and aren’t good at. Sometimes the fact that we are good at putting out the fires blinds people to what we are actually good at.  

You don’t want to go down the career path associated with saying yes – perhaps saying yes will take you further down a career path you don’t want to go down. Yeah, you could solve that IT infrastructure problem, but they are never going to see you as the new client services manager until you eventually say no to your former duties.

While all of these situations seem obvious and fair on the surface, the real challenge comes when ‘leadership’ comes to you (and only you) and says to you, ‘But you are the only one. And we need you today more than ever.’ That is a very tough situation to say no to.

Here’s how you take on saying no the right way.

Don’t make excuses

The most common way we say no is also the worst way possible. We say no and then follow with a long list of all of the reasons why we can’t do the thing we are being asked to do.

Two unfortunate outcomes accompany this all-too-common approach. First, the boss stops listening after the first or second excuse. Second, we inadvertently set up a dynamic of inviting the boss to find fault in our logic. In essence we are saying, ‘Here are my arguments. If you can find fault in them, you win and I’ll do whatever you ask.’ Not exactly the outcome we are looking for.

Saying no the right way

The best approach to saying no is simple. The opening 20% of the conversation should be no and a brief reason. The remaining 80% should consist of alternate solutions to help your boss (or whoever is asking) solve the problem without you. After all, when it comes right down to it, the person asking you for help has a fire on his or her hands. Their number one priority is to put the fire out. Ideally, the boss would like you to be the one to put out the fire and take on the problem. However, if you can find an alternate solution to the problem, you may not only benefit from helping your boss to solve the problem but also maintain your ground by successfully saying no.  

In the end, one of the keys to managing your time is know when and how to say no.  Master that, and I promise you’ll get the best of both worlds – maintaining your reputation and maintaining your sanity. And for those of you who haven’t seen George Costanza lose his mind when his wallet reaches its limit, enjoy!

This article first appeared in longer form at The Workplace Therapist.