I know most of my newsletter readers are women – and the few men amongst you are indeed very welcome – but I think it’s a safe assumption that most of my readers don’t naturally have testicles.

I was watching a TV programme recently where a junior member of staff was repeatedly “dumped on” by their manager, task upon task, no notice at all and most of those tasks were definitely not a part of their job role – except if the job description includes the “and anything my manager decides to ask of me” clause.

Seeing their colleague struggle under a torrent of tasks the advice from friends was “Just say “No”. Tell them where to go. You need to grow a pair!”.

In context I knew what they meant but honestly, I’m not sure that there’s a causal link between testosterone levels and the ability to refuse a task.

Saying yes to tasks that aren’t yours or that you don’t want might come as a result of a real or perceived power imbalance – you fear the consequences of your refusal for your job, your status or your relationship – perhaps you think the other person won’t like you, will think less of you, might even punish you if you say no.

That’s not a good place to be.

More often we find ourselves facing peers, clients or colleagues making requests or demands upon our time – they don’t have the power of “hire and fire” yet we still struggle to say no.

What’s the answer?

Talking with coaching clients, I take time to listen, to understand the context of their situation and the dynamic of their relationships but the answers are often very simple: a form of words which politely and respectfully says “No”.

  • I really appreciate being asked but no, I can’t do that.
  • Thank you for asking but I’m not able to commit to that right now.
  • I’d like to help but that isn’t going to be possible for me.
  • I do understand what you’re asking but that isn’t a priority for me right now.
  • I’m going to say no for now. If something changes, I’ll get back to you.
  • No, I can’t do that. What I can do is…

As you look at that list, what comes to mind for you?

Some clients struggle with these simple phrases.

Part of the secret of success is saying it like you mean it. Your words, your voice and your body language need to convey the same message, a firm and respectful “No”. Can you remember how you did that? Standing tall. Holding eye contact. With a calm and steady voice.

The thing that will undermine you is believing you don’t have the right to refuse a request or even negotiate about the terms of delivery.

Of course it makes sense to consider the consequences of a refusal. We might want to work a little on supporting the relationship with the other, to find ways to remind them that we are still committed to the team or the project or the organisation.

Our “no” in these situations demonstrates that we are also committed to delivering on the projects that we have prioritised for ourselves and our role.

But remember, saying yes also has consequences – the difference is that the pain is usually borne by us. We have the headache and stress of the additional work. We struggle as our priority work is delayed or set aside. We may lose the respect of the other as we’re obviously a pushover… (yes, that can be the other side of being a really helpful colleague) and if we are always willing to pick up their “loose ends”, they have little incentive to change their behaviour.

You can be a great colleague and say no.

You can be a great friend and say no.

You can be a loving parent and say no.

Learning to say no doesn’t require you “to grow a pair” but you might need to learn to step into your own power, with respect and with confidence and truly believe that you have the right and the responsibility to prioritise your own work.

If you really do want to get out of overwhelm and do more of the things on your own priority list, this is a key tool to have in your toolkit!

Maybe you’re thinking “It’s easy for her to say that!”, so if you’re struggling with any of the above, do let me know.

I’d love to hear from you and help you!


PS: There’s still time to grab a copy of my Out of Overwhelm Route Map – invest an hour over the weekend to make sure you start next week with a better set of tools for getting stuff done.

Yes, I want that!