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Learning to Say No Is One of the Secrets of Success

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Photo Credit: Belathee Photography

When was the last time you felt pressured to say yes to something? Not because you wanted to but because you felt like you had to? That happened to me about a year ago in the form of a job offer. A company offered me a position. It was a great opportunity, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. I wish I had not viewed rejecting the opportunity as a failure but rather as leaving space for other (better) opportunities to come my way. It’s a lesson many successful leaders learn well into their careers, after saying yes one time too many. Take notice, all you yes-ers. It’s time to embrace the power of no.

Earlier this summer, Forbes held its annual Women’s Summit in New York City. More than three hundred leaders, including Jessica Alba of The Honest Company and Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa, came together to discuss the theme of “Transforming the Rules of Engagement.” (Check out the hashtag #powerredefined for some great tweets from the event).

We always hear how we should say yes and embrace every opportunity that comes our way, but what about the power of saying no? One panel at the Forbes summit, “The Power of No: Defining Your Impact as a Leader,” gathered to consider how saying no can be more powerful than saying yes. Psychology Today calls saying no a “hidden power.” It’s like your secret weapon in your quest for your personal definition of success.

Unfortunately, we are often reluctant to say no and are wary of overusing the word. By reshaping our understanding of what no actually means, we can turn our phobia into an embrace of its power.

Why We Are Afraid to Say No

How can a simple two-letter word strike such unrest in our hearts? There are several reasons why we hesitate before saying no.

01. You Don’t Want to Disappoint or Offend

It’s no secret that relationships are an important part of life. You may feel that refusing a request will affect your relationship in negative ways. This goes for coworkers, your boss, friends, or family members. It’s easier to say no to the person with a clipboard who you pass on the sidewalk during lunch hour. It is harder to say no to your best friend who has just asked you to babysit her daughter for the second time this week. The fear of offending or disappointing someone whose opinion you value can make saying no quite uncomfortable.

02. You Don’t Want to Miss Out on an Opportunity

During the Forbes Women’s Summit, Ina Garten spoke about the lessons she learned about the power of saying no. She recalled how she used to accept every opportunity when she began building her business. Why? Because she wasn’t sure which one would be the most successful for her. We may feel like we have to say yes to an opportunity even if we’re not particularly thrilled about it because we don’t want to miss out on the potential it might bring. How many times have you felt swamped at work only to have your boss ask you to add another time-sensitive project to the list? You’re already overwhelmed, but saying no to this request means a missed opportunity to show your boss how competent you are.

03. You View It as a Sign of Weakness

For some, saying no feels like admitting failure. When someone offers us an opportunity, invites us to an event, or asks us to take on a new role at work, we often feel flattered. It’s a sign that others view us as competent or likable.

Our culture is obsessed with always being busy; as pointed out in a popular New York Times Opinionator piece, busy equals important. We think that saying yes to every opportunity means that we are valuable and important because, hey, we always have something to do! Realistically, this approach to life is unsustainable in the long run. And it’s just plain false.

Why We Should Embrace Saying No

Yes, saying no can be scary. Despite the fears associated with turning down a request or an invitation, there are some clear benefits.

01. It Helps You Stay True to Your Core Values

Saying no allows you to avoid those projects, opportunities, or job offers that don’t align with your core values. Staying true to yourself and your goals is an essential part of maintaining your well-being. Anything that diverts energy away from those goals can dilute the power you have to effect change.

Ina Garten shared that if an offer doesn’t align with her brand’s vision and values, she will turn it down. As a bestselling author and host on Food Network, Garten has a net worth estimated at more than $40 million, according to Forbes. Jared Leto, the multitalented singer, actor, director, and investor, told Fast Company in an interview, “I like to employ the power of no. We all want to say yes because with yes comes so much opportunity, but with the power of no comes focus and engagement.” In the same interview, he shares that he prefers to focus on quality projects that he is passionate about rather than trying to produce a large quantity of material. It’s been a recipe for success. His band has toured worldwide. He won an Academy Award for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

Like Ina and Jared, you can use your core values to guide which opportunities to embrace and which to pass over. If the commitment you face does not align with your core values, consider turning it down. If you have a strong reason for why you should say no, it will make it easier.

02. You Can Prevent Burnout

Never saying no is the perfect recipe for burnout. When we’re afraid to decline everything that comes our way, we find ourselves overloaded and overwhelmed. Life is short. No one wants to spend it exhausted, overworked, and resentful. Being discriminatory of the offers and invitations that come your way prevents burnout. It lets you focus on what truly matters to you, which makes for a happier and healthier life.

Ways to Embrace Saying No

As mentioned before, the thought of telling someone no (depending on who it is) can cause anxiety. But a little planning—along with some practice—can make the process a whole lot easier.

01. Identify Your Core Values (and Stick to Them!)

Knowing what your core values are is essential to helping you decide what you can say yes to and what you should pass on. Brian de Haaff, CEO of Aha! software company, call this a “goals first” approach. These values can range from knowing what we want our career path to look like to making spending time with family and friends a top priority. You may receive a job offer that includes a significant pay raise but lacks one of your core values. For example, you are passionate about nonprofit work. It might be more in line with your life goals to pass the opportunity by. For others, a salary increase might be part of an important element in their career path. They would likely consider accepting the offer. Your decision hinges on the values and goals you identify for yourself.

What would you do if someone invited you to a work event with great networking opportunities? What if it was the same time as your friend’s birthday party that you already committed to? Would you find it hard to turn the work invitation down? Defining your values, goals, and priorities now will help you make decisions you will be at peace with in the future.

02. Practice, Practice, Practice

OK, you think, saying no makes sense, but how exactly do I say it? Judith Sills, Ph.D., in her article on the power of saying no, recommends being as transparent as possible. Give the reason why you have to say no, accompanied by an “I wish I could say yes, but . . .” For example, “I wish I could attend the networking event tomorrow, but I have already committed to another event. I’d love to attend the next event if my schedule allows.” Packaging your no with a reason and regret for the fact that you can’t accept helps to soften the bluntness of a flat-out no.

For situations in the workplace where you feel obligated to say yes but are concerned it might impact your quality of work (read: Your boss needs you to put together a report for the board meeting that’s in three days), be honest with him or her. Let them know you will be happy to take on the project. But also give them a heads-up that your other work might need to take the backseat for a few days. Your boss will appreciate your awareness of the complexities and interactions involved. (We promise, it can be done!) Practice saying no until you’re more comfortable with it and no longer bat an eyelash.

03. Remind Yourself Why You Are Saying No

When you feel pressured to say yes but know that you should turn down an opportunity with a polite no, remind yourself of the reason behind your decision. You are not a failure if you say no. You are honoring your core values when you say no. You may disappoint a few people here and there, but, if they are at all empathic, they should understand why you have to decline. If it helps, think of Jared Leto, and remind yourself that you are choosing “focus and engagement” in life.

Changing the way you think about saying no will make it less scary and more empowering. Think of it as a chance to honor the opportunities you are already invested in rather than as a limitation. It allows you to spend quality time with what you value instead of feeling like life is pulling you in a hundred different directions. And who could say no to that?