How to Say NO With Grace

September 24, 2021

All my professional career, well really all my life, I have been a people pleaser to some extent. I know I am opening up Pandora’s box by admitting this, but it’s been a hot topic on my mind of late.

But first, a little about “people pleasers” (show of hands if this resonates with you after reading).

  • People pleasers’ first objective is to place other people’s needs first and are sometimes exploited due to this tendency. 
  • You feel responsible for how other people feel.
  • Difficulty saying no – yes is the default, figure it out after.
  • It makes you uncomfortable if others are mad with you.
  • You love praise and admiration for work done well.
  • You don’t admit when your feelings are hurt.

As my brands have grown exponentially in the last few years, the need to learn to say no has become increasingly more important. Yet, as entrepreneurs, we are always expedient in accepting jobs, sometimes of any nature because we thrive on accomplishments and will never admit we are overwhelmed or too busy.

While our can-do attitude does have its benefits, always committing to something can quickly backfire, especially if it has to do with our business and relationships.

Put aside the guilt and, regardless of your reason for saying no, it’s time to get good at it. Saying no is not about being a bad person or a selfish person – it’s important to take care of yourself before you can take care of others (or so I’ve heard). Saying no also doesn’t mean that you are a quitter, it just means you have limitations that you recognize.

The first step is to stop thinking that you can do it all and that there isn’t enough time in the day to accomplish everything on your list. People pleasers often struggle with this because they feel like if they say no, it will be a black mark against them. But don’t worry – you’ll still receive positive reviews if you are honest and upfront, provide value and quality, regardless if it takes a bit longer to complete.

People pleasers have a hard time with this because they want to be liked by everyone. If you don’t want the job or it is something that your values don’t align with, then kindly say no. Don’t take a job that doesn’t fit within your framework of positive and fulfilling work.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I ask people to do something and they agree, and then don’t follow through. By promising someone you are going to do something, or agreeing to a deadline, then not following through on it (even if it means you have to drop something else you are also committed to) is akin to telling your child you will pick her up in the carpool line at 3:00 pm and head to the gym instead.

Accepting a job for money is okay, but if you feel it will compromise your values or sanity, you simply should not accept the offer. Saying no isn’t easy because we are so conditioned to please people and be helpful. I am still finding my feet with this lesson on a daily basis, and still have much to learn.

Of course, saying no is easier said than done. It’s not as easy as it sounds when you are starting out because we are all eager to make a name for ourselves and we [wrongly] think that by saying yes to everyone and everything, we will quickly earn a reputation as a doer. Sadly, we couldn’t be further from the truth. If we try to do it all, we will end up doing a merely average job.

Some years ago I read an article about a woman who was the quickest-rising executive in her organization’s history—until she was promoted into a role that required less of her expertise and people engagement and more time reviewing her staff’s performance, attending mind-numbing corporate meetings, and monitoring performance metrics for stakeholders. She was overwhelmed with deadlines, underwhelmed with the work, and she floundered – so did her division.

She had to face the fact that as a people pleaser, she wasn’t the ideal candidate for a promotion into a role with more managerial responsibility. Unfortunately, many people don’t have this inner compass of self-awareness and blindly accept the promotion and/or job as a sign of allegiance to the company and/or a swelling of their personal pride for advancement/achievement and a job well done.

Don’t make the rookie mistake of trying to please everyone. And, don’t take on more than you can handle. It’s a valuable life lesson that will serve you for years to come in both your professional and personal lives. Being a people pleaser is not sustainable nor healthy for you. 

If you are like me (and I know I am at times a little too eager to please), then here are some tips that will help you say no without hurting anyone’s feelings.

First of all, don’t feel guilty for saying no when asked to do something you don’t want to do. Be confident in your decision and if they choose to take it personally, that is on them.

Make an effort to say ‘no’ more often when someone asks you for help or support. You will see a great improvement in your productivity and focus in life once you start turning down and saying no to people. If they are requesting something of you that does not support your goals or priorities, then it’s probably best that you have a candid conversation with them.

Second, always offer an alternative solution or idea when you say no. Doing so will enable you to get your point across, and when they feel that you have given them an option or alternative then it’s not going to be so offensive, and they will quickly realize you hold no malice for your discriminatory decision.

Third, ask for clarification on their request.  Sometimes people are not filtering and just blurt out a request without thinking it through. This is the time when you want to step in and ask for clarification before responding. By doing this, both parties may be able to reach a mutual understanding that doesn’t require you to say no and doesn’t upset them.

Fourth, lay out your expectations. When you say yes to everything, you are communicating that your time is not important. By laying out your expectations clearly with a client for example, early in the life cycle, you are more clearly establishing the parameters of the relationship and clearly setting the expectation and delivery of your product.

Now that we have broken down the topics into simple steps, let me end with saying this: it is OK to tell someone you can’t do something if you are upfront about it. I know this contradicts everything you learned in third grade, but we weren’t talking about Mrs. McConnell and all her judgments back then were we? In the end, just remember that if you don’t say no, you are saying yes to not fulfilling your goals or dreams.

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