I don’t remember how or when exactly this notion creeped into my bones that “No” was the most horrible word ever. So, I said yes for the longest time to everything that came my way (even when I didn’t want to do it) with a benevolent smile. Saying yes seemed to be the most gracious thing to do as a good girl and woman.
Saying “Yes” felt like a heavy cross
I won’t deny that saying yes made me likable, seem dependable, and successful at school, workplace and home.
But, why did saying yes and being successful not make me feel like a happy, empowered woman?
But again, was I really successful? All along, it felt like I was trying to fit into the expectations of society and its confined box of success. Somewhere in my thirties, I started getting some semblance of who I was and being comfortable with myself. When I started looking inwards, the door to the path I wanted to pursue automatically appeared. The more I headed towards my purpose, the more saying “yes” seemed like an obstacle.
When I looked around, I saw many seemingly successful women on the surface, struggling to be liked while barely making ends meet at home and workplace. We’re baited with titles like superwoman and domestic goddess, as we pile on more workload like the proverbial donkey. It seemed like women’s work is unimportant and invisible even if we slog 24*7 for others.
When I said yes to everything that came my way, it was affecting my sanity and career prospects. I was continually giving to others without taking from them, and was desperate to escape from this sacrificial cycle. Saying no seemed to be the only way out.
“Loving yourself isn’t vanity. It’s sanity.”– André Gide
How To Say No Without Guilt And Serious Repercussions
Saying no required me to be cautious in my approach as there could be potential negative implications – being called difficult to work with, the drama queen who throws tantrums, or unprofessional. Unlike men who have the privilege of saying no with no major repercussions in their personal and professional life.
Here are some steps that helped me ease into saying no confidently to people while getting their support.
1. Rethink “No”
Instead of looking at “No” with a negative connotation, let’s shift our perspective by saying it as a positive affirmation:
No means “Nourish Oneself.”
This shifted perspective of “No” needs to be conveyed to everyone we work with. Saying no means we respect our time and energy by putting up boundaries so we can give our best to our clients and the organisation.
Saying no is a revolutionary act because we show our authentic selves. We can get more comfortable saying no when we remind ourselves regularly of our vision and purpose.
My goal at the start of 2022 was to achieve balance in my life. I had to say no more often this year as an act of self-preservation and the attainment of my purpose.
I remember saying no to one of my long-standing client’s new work requests at the start of the year. I wanted to spend that time instead with my mother, who was recently detected with cancer then. Work would always be there, but I didn’t want to miss out on what I saw as my current top priority, being a caregiver to a parent. As the year progressed, the focus shifted to health. Saying no to myself meant winding up all work before dinner and being strict about my sleep schedule. No matter how lucrative an opportunity is, I had to say no to honour myself and my vision in life.
“If you feel “burnout” setting in, if you feel demoralised and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.”— Dalai Lama XIV
2. Say No Respectfully, Firmly, And Fully
One of the startling discoveries I’d made this year is how easily people supported me despite saying no to them. Whether it was putting up boundaries with certain people or declining their requests, most people understood why I was doing what I was doing and respected it. I regretted why I didn’t say no earlier.
Saying no is easy when respect is a two-way street. You neither have to be aggressive nor passive when saying no to others. You just need to be respectful and firm while saying so.
Recently, I said no to frequent, long meetings with a US-based client whose calls would go beyond 10 pm IST. I shared how I wanted to attend two calls per month instead of four. And I wouldn’t want our calls to go beyond 9 pm IST. To my surprise, the client was okay with my decent proposition and other requests for changes in our current arrangement, including pricing.
I wondered how much time I wasted all these years for not saying no when I wanted to. At the start, what stopped me were the thoughts that it was almost sinful to utter the word and the fear of losing relationships and work opportunities. I would always swap the word “no” with other people-pleasing phrases such as “okay”, “sure”, or “I suppose”.
It was Anne Lamott, author of “Bird by Bird” whose quote enlightened me and strengthened my resolve to say no confidently. She said,
“No is a complete sentence. It’s given me this tremendous sense of power. I’m a little bit drunk on it.”– Anne Lamott
So, I started saying no with complete conviction and in full power by taking the following actions.
- Make a list of the reasons you’re saying yes. I vowed to say no unless I had valid reasons for saying yes, and was not coerced into saying yes because it’s expected of me.
- Saying no should be made after an informed decision. Gather all the facts first and calculate how much time and effort you’ll need to put in for the request. Who is making this offer? If it’s coming from someone at the top of a very hierarchical organisation, you may not even have the option of saying no. But if you must do so, approach it carefully to avoid serious consequences.
- Have clear rules for “Yes” and “No”. If you have gathered all the information, you can say no immediately. But for a yes, buy some time, at least 24 years before taking the final decision. It’ll give you time to reassess the work on your plate, and if you can accommodate more commitments. Don’t underestimate the costs, be it time, effort, and money.
- Get closure, i.e. see through your no from start to finish. Saying no is pointless unless it’s accepted by the other party as well. It’s not seeking their permission as much as closure. Seeking closure also ensures that there are no negative repercussions of saying no, especially to a superior or someone who holds power.
- Offer alternative solutions. You can be honest about your situation and suggest alternative choices and people so you don’t leave the other party dangling always. Or you could suggest delegating your work to other team members so you could fulfil their request if it’s important for both of you.
3. Take Your Support Group Into Confidence
I knew any change had to start from home. I know the work we do in our homes is not exactly counted as “work” even if it’s time-consuming and backbreaking. But this is where the root problem lies. If we can start saying no in our homes, we’ll get more confident saying it at the workplace. It’s important to convey that everyone can more equitably share the work at home. So, while I put in my fair share of work at home, I left things for others to do as well. I still distinctly remember the look of the elders in my joint family home when I first said no or evaded some of their requests. This problem runs deep in our conditioning, so I can’t blame them.
I took my husband into confidence and told him that these sacrificial expectations were affecting me and my health. I told him I would no longer be doing many things around home, even for him. When I started defining what was fair, acceptable, and comfortable work for me at home, I started experiencing success in the workplace, too.
If I had the support of my husband at home, I sought the support of some of my mentors who had my best interests at the workplace. I recently discussed with my boss about taking on more leadership roles and how I needed his support when I’d say no to some of the current work expectations. Saying no helped me get better at garnering support from the right people and the art of delegation.
Similarly, I started confiding in my college friends and other support groups and communities about workplace politics, being approached for thankless requests, or how to overcome being seen as a wallflower. We help each other cope with our guilt, work challenges, and help one each other with our unbiased suggestions.
“Women are leaders everywhere you look—from the CEO who runs a Fortune 500 company to the housewife who raises her children and heads her household. Our country was built by strong women, and we will continue to break down walls and defy stereotypes”– Nancy Pelosi
Say No To Step Into Your Authenticity
Saying no in a world that’s wired to believe that women are born nurturers and helpers, and not leaders, can be tricky. But it’s doable with tact and patience.
The bigger question we should ask ourselves is:
Why should women be obligated to say yes all the time at home and work?
Once I started seeing the reality with the conditioned bias, I ditched all guilt. I didn’t need anyone’s permission or feel obligated to say yes anymore. I started saying no freely to injustice – slavish expectations, unfair compensation, and overall unacceptable behaviour.
There’s no shame in asking and seeking equality and balance. If saying yes is acceptable, so should saying no too. Mature organisations and managers will understand and appreciate the forthrightness and right intention. Saying no doesn’t mean you’re trying to escape work, but seeking to deliver quality work that will benefit the organisation and industry.
If you look from a non-gendered lens, you cannot please everyone. There’s no need to give thought to people who talk negatively about you when you say no and step into your power.
It’s okay to be authentic to you as that will also attract the right tribe of supporters. So, practice saying no to someone once a day, week, month, and all year long. It’s your superpower that’ll help redirect your energies to focus on what’s truly important.