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How To Gracefully Say No

Use this simple framework for a successful conversation

Clearly communicate your priorities.
Clearly communicate your priorities.

How many meetings or projects do you have on your calendar that you dread? I’ve often looked at impending events or deadlines only to think, “I wish I would have had the courage to tell this person no instead of just defaulting to yes.”

Many of us struggle with communicating priorities because it isn’t as simple as promising to set better boundaries or stopping our crazy/busy cycle by saying no more often. For me, I often found myself on either end of the spectrum. I’d say yes to everything, leading to overwhelm. Or, I’d overcorrect and launch into a full blown “no thanks” campaign, which left me isolated.  

Finding that sweet spot and living our best yes of pursing the right commitments starts with reflecting why we believe we need to say yes when we want to say no (or vice versa). An intriguing habit I’ve observed that interrupts our ability to articulate an honest answer is how quickly our thoughts jump in to reason with our desire to say no. Over my years of coaching and training clients to set boundaries, here are four common mindsets and beliefs I see that convince us to say yes when we want to say no. Do you identify with one or more of these?

  1. Achiever Mindset. “If say no, people will think I’m not capable.” Or, they’ll think I’m not a high achiever, or worthy of what I’ve been hired to do.
  2. People-Pleasing Mindset. “If I say no, people will be unhappy with me.” Or, I’ll make them angry.
  3. Responsibility/Caretaker Mindset. “If I say no, people will think I don’t support them.” Or, that I don’t care about them.
  4. Perfectionist/Risk-Averse Mindset. “I’ll say yes so you can see me as perfect, but I’ll procrastinate on delivery until the “thing” is perfect.” On the other side of the coin, it can look like saying no too often because of the thought, “I’m not going to say yes until it’s perfect or risk free.”  

How To Change Your Mindset

Whichever mindset you’ve identified with, the first step in giving the answer most genuine for you, is to ask yourself if that belief is true. Since I’ve been known to be a little bit of a people pleaser, I’ll use that example. Based on The Work of Byron Katie, here is a series of questions to get to the truth, which will help you anchor your best yes:

  • Is it true that If I say no, people will be unhappy with me? No, that’s probably not true.
  • How do I act when believe this people-pleasing thought? I tend to say yes to everything and then all of a sudden nobody’s happy because I’m not getting anything done.
  • If I couldn’t believe this people-pleasing thought, what would I do? I would say yes to things that are meaningful for me, projects that allow me to add value. And if I can’t, I’d tell them I’m not the best person for this right now and say no.
  • Is the opposite of this people-pleasing thought also true? Yes, I’ve noticed times when I’ve said yes, people are still unhappy with me. Perhaps even more freeing, I’ve experienced many times when I’ve said no and people are still happy

Someone else’s happiness isn’t my responsibility. Their happiness is THEIR responsibility.

Kelli Thompson

A Simple Framework To Say No With Grace

Once we can open up our minds to give our best, most authentic answer, the next challenge is often, “Well, how do I say this kindly and collaboratively, with gratitude and in a way that honors my values?”

Here’s a simple boundary-setting process:

  1. Thank them for the ask your happy to do
  2. Communicate your values/commitments
  3. Describe what you can’t accommodate
  4. Turn 1-3 into a question statement.

Here’s an example. “Kelli, can your team do a workshop for us on Tuesday?” (It’s Friday).

Sample Answer: “Thanks for reaching out, I’d be happy to do a workshop (1)! I want to ensure it’s relevant and high energy (2), and that typically takes about one week to prepare. Since Tuesday won’t provide enough development time (3), how does XX date work for you and your team(4)?”

The keys to saying no with grace are gratitude and collaboration. It could also lead you to offering help by recommending another person or organization who might be a better partner for them. You are worth the effort of communicating what boundaries you can work within and what you can’t accommodate.  Remember, only the wrong people are angered by healthy boundaries and commitments.

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