"No is a very simple word. One syllable. Two letters. One of the shortest words in the English language, yet one of the most difficult for women to say at work." This quote comes from psychiatrist and researcher Nanette Gartrell, who wrote a book called, "My Answer Is No . . . If That's Okay With You."
Recently, I was invited to conduct a workshop for working women on the topic of saying no at work. We talked about the fact that many women have trouble with this and take on numerous activities, way beyond what they want. We discussed the various reasons why women have trouble saying no at work. Based on our conversations and research in the area, some the reasons include the following:
Women are people pleasers.
They put the needs of others before their own.
They want to be compassionate and help others.
They want to be liked.
They don't want to be rude.
They want to show they are team players.
They worry what others will say if they do say "no."
They are afraid of conflict.
They have a desire to keep the peace.
They don't know how to let others down gracefully.
They worry over lost opportunities if they say no.
They worry about burning bridges.
They feel a need for control in how something is done; so if they don't do it themselves, they figure it might be done poorly.
Yet, taking on so many activities at work may result in exhaustion and feelings of deprivation in sleep, emotional support, physical energy, and time to themselves, as well as feeling empty and resentful.
I then shared with the group some strategies for what women can do to say no. Based on research and my own work with women, here are some of those strategies:
Create your "absolute yes" and "absolute no" lists. Cheryl Richardson, author of the 2009 book "The Art of Extreme Self-Care," makes the case for such lists to determine what is and is not important to you. To create your "yes" list, set your top priorities (family, community service, work projects, emotional and physical health). When people ask you to do things related to those priorities, your response can be a "yes." If, however, the request isn't related to your list, you can say "no." Likewise, create your "Absolute No" list (things you no longer do, no longer want to do or would like to give up in the future). For example, maybe you put on your list "I no longer check emails after 9 p.m. or on Sundays," or "I no longer accept phone calls during family dinners." Having such a list and looking at it daily can remind you of things that are definite "nos."
Set "no" as your default answer. Instead of starting with "Yes, I will see if I can do it," start with "No."
Pause first. Put some space between the request and your answer. I've worked with a colleague who is really good at this. When people ask him to serve on projects, he firsts asks very good questions about the nature and scope of the work involved. Then, he says he needs time to think about it given his other commitments. After he has spent some time learning how much work is involved, he then offers his response.
Let the person know from the beginning that you may not be able to help them. Point out that you have a number of other commitments and will need to review these first. This also lets them know that it might be a good idea for them to look at other options rather than simply relying on you to do the task.
Do a "gut check." Think about how much you really want to do it. Sleep on it. Then, if you discover you really want to do it, your answer will be a "yes." If not, your answer should be a "no." Make sure that if you do say yes, it's because you really want to do it, not because you feel guilty or have a sense of obligation.
Be wary of tricks. Watch out for people who flatter you to get you to do something, guilt you into it, whine so much that you finally do it just to get them to stop whining or those who bully you to do something.
Practice. Be direct when saying no. Don't overtalk the point, and don't be wishy-washy. Some women make too many hedging statements, leaving the other person confused (e.g., "I don't think I can do it, but if something changes, maybe I can.") Be appreciative that they asked you. Look them in the eyes and speak up. Make sure your nonverbal cues match your words.
Remember that if others are used to you saying "yes" to their requests, when you finally start saying "no," they may get upset. Be prepared for this. While it may be tempting to give in, stay firm. If they are pushy, remember that you can be just as pushy back. And remind yourself that a "no" to one thing means a "yes" to something that is more important to you -- your own time and priorities. This is one tradeoff that may be well worth it.
Joyce E.A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.