Saying no is difficult for a number of reasons: we're fearful of the other person’s response, we don’t want to be unlikable, and we’re not always sure if it’s appropriate -- especially in a work setting.
Women tend to worry more about the social consequences of saying no and being seen as selfish, but practicing that tiny little word is the key to making drastic changes in your life. The ability to firmly and politely say no helps avoid burn-out, both in the workplace and in your social circles. Your time is the most valuable thing you have, and you are entitled to spend it according to your preferences.
Many of us have been in situations when time commitments changed radically, for example, after adopting a new puppy, the arrival of a baby, or in the event of an illness. In those vital moments, it was suddenly much easier to distinguish between "must do" and "not necessary." Of course, hardly anyone wishes for more drama in their life, but we can borrow from those experiences. For greatest effect, be sure to make "I" statements that express your needs and opinions: “No, I’m not interested, thanks.” or “No, I disagree, I think we should go back to the drawing board”.
Saying no and getting comfortable with sticking to your guns can actually open up a wealth of new opportunities. In the absence of self-inflicted pressure to ‘go with the flow’, there is more space to consider your own preferences. The confidence that your time matters will give you the power to push back and focus your attention on fewer things more successfully.
Here are a few thoughts about the journey to mastering no. One doesn't become a proficient "nay-sayer" overnight, so pay attention to your typical "no" and "yes" behaviors and practice the necessary adjustments.
Trust your gut
Trust your first instinct. If you know deep down that you don't agree or that something doesn't feel right, stick with that stance. Charismatic people may try to convince you that you actually want to go to that fabulous social fundraiser you can't afford, or that you’re so efficient you totally can accept the extra project, but remind yourself of the commitments you already have. Is the proposed idea in line with your long-term goals, e.g. exercising regularly or wrapping up work on time every day? If you’d rather be doing something else or the cost of accepting seems too high, you have every right to express that preference.
"That would be so RUDE!"
Whenever I discuss work-related situations in my workshops that involve saying no to a boss or a customer, someone is sure to exclaim, "I could NEVER do that. That would be so RUDE!" Of course it isn't wise to aggravate your best customer, but asserting yourself doesn't have to mean being offensive. For example, think of a situation where a co-worker comes to "visit" your work area a lot, so much so that you are having trouble keeping up with your own work. You've heard all of her stories and gripes, and you'd love nothing better than to get back to work. Who is being rude in this situation, and do you really have no say in the matter? Sometimes, we're so worried about confrontation that we say no to our own values and time.
Take time to evaluate your preferences
If you frequently say yes and then feel like kicking yourself, it may be helpful to identify a "to-don't list" of behaviors, for example: "I will let go of immediately saying yes or no to requests so I can take time to think about what works for me." (see also Sally Helgesen's book on the subject)
Asking for time to think or to check your calendar can provide the necessary buffer to evaluate your preferences. After some reflection, why would there be any reason to say yes to the following situations:
-Meet a business contact for coffee who is unlikely to ever generate business
-Take over a volunteer role that sounds boring or overwhelming
-Accept a lower-paid project when your work calendar is full
Everyone needs time for learning something new, for keeping up with friendships, and for doing absolutely nothing once in a while. Declining to focus on matters that are not a good fit for your priorities frees up the necessary time and energy for things that are truly important. It means saying yes to being in control of your own schedule and to setting your sights higher. Saying no means greater enjoyment and fun, with people (or critters) of your choice. Declining, with grace and intention, frees you up to become the person you want to be and lets you do your finest work.