Powerful Insights 

Articles, interviews, inspiration, and tools to help you balance your power with purpose

Powerful Insights 

Articles, interviews, inspiration, and tools to help you balance your power with purpose

Ditch the guilt: feel good when you say no

employee negotiation resources small business Jan 26, 2024
Joanne is standing in front of a flip chart, which has the word

For most women, no is a word we struggle with. We've been socialized to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves, to say yes to opportunities, and always to jump in and help others. We're told that saying yes will lead to success at work and in business. But yes can be a dangerous word. If you're a business owner, it can lead you down distracting paths, encourage you to make short-sighted choices, and corner you into a business where you can barely breathe (let alone take a week off without worry). If you work for someone else, it can lead to unrealistic expectations, exhausting workloads, and unfulfilling tasks that get you zero credit at promotion time (hello organizing the office holiday party). In this article, I want to share the power of learning to say no and offer some advice for where and how to use this powerful word in a way that protects your relationships, supports your physical and mental health, and helps you build a business or work life that fills your soul. 

Why is it hard to say no?

It used to be hard for me to say no, but I'm getting a lot better at it.

Throughout my career and in the early days of my business, I said yes to everything. I was constantly worried about securing my next contract, about how to bring in some cash. I didn't evaluate the proposed work, just whether it would help me hit a minimal financial goal (ie. replacing the income I had been bringing in through my 9-5 job). Saying yes to everything can seem like the right choice when you are trying to get established. But sometimes it does more harm than good. 

As you know if you're trapped in this repetitive cycle, the more I focused on meeting my short term needs, the less time I had to invest in my long term strategy - and the less aligned my work was with what I actually wanted to do in my business. I was basically re-creating my old 9-5 where I traded time for money and put in extra time to get the important work done. 

The problem with short term thinking was that I wasn't making strategic decisions for my career or my business. So instead of focusing my work in the areas where I shone, I found myself doing everything. In my career, this meant doing work I really didn't enjoy doing. In my business, it was the exact same problem...except the only person I could blame was myself.  

If you find yourself trapped in the cycle of "yes", then let me tell you what changed for me when I learned the power of saying no. 

No should be applied differently in different situations

Saying no didn't come easily to me. My whole career, I was a yes person. My boss would come to me with a problem and I would figure out a way through. Of course, I wasn't working alone then. For 90% of my corporate career, I had a multi-disciplinary team who could divide and conquor the work. So saying yes meant reprioritizing the work of between 5 and 60 people, depending on the urgency and importance of the issue.

It doesn't work like that in my business today. If I say yes to something, I have to be able to deliver on it by myself - or subcontract with someone who is available, willing, and skilled in that area. So in the beginning of my business, I said yes to contracts, but didn't identify the parts of them that I should have said no to (or charged an additional fee for). I didn't consider if the contract would add to the success of my business. I just looked at the fee I would generate. 

Say no to low-value tasks

For example, for the last 10 years of my career, I had administrative support. So when I opened my business, I had zero understanding of how much work was involved in setting up a series of meetings with different people. In case you're just starting out, know that this sounds like an easy task, and there are tech solutions that can help. But there still remains a lot of interaction, rescheduling, and follow up to ensure those meetings actually happen. In one of my early contracts, I estimated it would take no more than an hour to set up meetings with 25 people. Was I ever wrong! I should have billed for 6 or 7 hours - or given the organization my calendar and asked them to ensure all 25 people booked meetings during my available times. [If you use Outlook, Microsoft has a great Bookings with me tool to help your clients find time to meet with you.]

This was a big lesson - to take the time when negotiating a contract to say no to parts of it that weren't a good use of my time (or use of the client's investment). Setting these boundaries and expectations early is professional, and essential to meeting expectations and delivering the outcomes you've been hired to achieve. 

Say no to opportunities that don't energize you

This is a hard one for all of us. If you're working in a day job, you might be trying to cultivate favour with a senior leader, prove your skills or loyalty, or get some face time with someone you'd like to approach about mentorship. So you might feel like saying yes is the only way to make that happen.

It's no better for entrepreneurs. Especially in the early stages of business, there's a bit of "throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks." We try lots of things to see what we enjoy, where we thrive, and where there is a market for what we do. The challenge is that there are endless ways to make money - and you might feel compelled to chase all of them, because they represent the opportunity for stable or significant income. But you need to ask yourself - do those opportunities energize you or suck your energy away? 

One of the things I struggled with (and honestly, still do) was saying no to one-on-one coaching. I have loved being coached, and have mentored many people throughout my career, and so I assumed being a coach would be a good line of business for me. So I tried it out and I realized I am not made for a traditional coaching relationship. I can't bite my tongue and let my client slowly come their own realizations over 3-4 months. I want to jump in and offer strategic advice. I want to help my clients understand the steps to success, and not walk beside them as they make mistake after mistake. 

Realizing that, I came to see myself as more of an advisor than a coach. I'm happy to host a VIP session to work through a strategy, but I'm no good in a long-term coaching relationship. Besides, there are coaches out there who are amazing at what they do. I'd rather you go and see them than try to fit myself into what you need. But this is a tough one for me. Just this week, I've had three conversations with women who need some coaching support. I told every one of them that I'm not a coach, and offered recommendations to other coaches, based on what I think they need. 

The difference between me now and me a few years ago is that today, I feel good in saying no. 


Say no to volunteer gigs that don't align 

Volunteering is a gift that feeds the health of our communities - but only when volunteers are there because they want to be. If you've ever volunteered for an organization, you know how easy it is to pick out the people who really don't want to be there. In a lot of those cases, that role filled their cup when they first joined the organization. But over time, the work became stale or their personal priorities changed, making that work less relevant. Think about child care centre volunteers. It's a rare person who is still on a child care board when their kids are graduating from high school. It's healthy to volunteer and it's healthy to move on when the time is right. 

I took some space when I transitioned from a 9-5 to consider where I wanted to volunteer my time and energy. I considered things like: whether the work or organization was aligned to my business purpose, how much I loved the roles I held, and, given different pressures and scheduling conflicts, whether I could be present - physically and energetically if I continued in my roles. As a result, I ended the volunteer relationships that were no longer right for me and reoriented my time in alignment to the things that matter to me now. As an example, I joined the board of Shakespeare In The Ruins - a theatre company that has held my heart since I was a teenager. It's not an organization that is particularly aligned to my business, but it's aligned to my love of theatre and my dream that the arts be accessible for diverse communities - and that fills my cup.

Say no early and with clarity

It's important when you say no that you do so with as much clarity as possible. Your no feels less harsh when it comes with an explanation that it's not a good fit for your skills, you have too many existing projects on the go, that your personal priorities have shifted, or that it would put you in a difficult situation. 

I began cutting off misaligned requests to work with me at the earliest opportunity. Want me to come and build your KPIs? Nope. Want me to work on a many-months-long project? No thanks. Want to collaborate in a sector where I'm not an expert? Absolutely not. You're welcome to hire me for an hour or two of advice, but I don't want to be tied to long term projects that aren't the target of my business. When I get approached in casual conversations about work that I would never say yes to, I take the opportunity to explain why it's not a good fit for me, but recommend others (if I know of anyone great) who they might want to reach out to. 

Saying no can open other opportunities to grow your business

I know how scary it can be to say no. But the more I said no to opportunities that weren't aligned, the more space I created to build tools and resources in the area of expertise within which I love working. You know - that thing that is the foundation of my business, the source of long term strategic advantage. And the more time I focused there, the more I saw aligned opportunities and people finding their way into my life.

Say yes to relationships

Part of the reason was that I actually had time to build those relationships. When I was focused solely on replacing my income every month, I was so worried about getting the next contract signed that I didn’t take the time to think about where I wanted to be in three or four years. And at the pace that I tend to do things, if I didn’t know where I was headed, there was a good chance I was going to have to make a major detour somewhere along the way. Building releationships with clients and partners is an essential way to create sustainable business growth. Long-term or repeat clients and word-of-mouth referrals go a long way for organic growth in business.

Say yes to strategic priorities

Saying no also caused me to ditch my incremental thinking. In the beginning I approached contract quotes with the mindset of always comparing the new one to the ones I had done previously (at lower rates and before I figured out exactly how much time it took me to produce certain deliverables). For a long time, I compared my contract rates to my old biweekly salary. I added an increment, but that didn’t necessarily represent a fair quote for me. Saying no meant fewer of these small contracts and more time to actually price out the actual work. 

Say yes to breathing room

By saying no to things that weren’t aligned, I created space in my lifeto write. In the summer of 2022, I wrote every single day, creating the first draft of my manuscript for my first book (yes, of course, it’s about negotiation for women). Throughout 2023, I worked through a series of structured edits and a round of beta reading. This spring, I am preparing to pitch it to agents! But honestly, I would never had taken this time if I had said yes to working contracts throughout the summer or to the neverending opportunities to pick up more contracts. 

How you can say no more often

As a woman, as a mother, a friend, a daughter, a business owner – you face a hundred requests a day. Some of them are simple and require little effort and almost no thought. These aren’t the ones I want you to focus on.

The ones I want you to focus on are the ones that will consume more than 20 minutes and require your attention. When these requests come up – whether they are about new work or an urgent request to drive your kid to the mall – here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if yes is really the right answer:

Six questions to ask before taking on a new poject

  • Does it align to your values?
  • Is it important?
  • Do you have to do it (or could someone else)?
  • Do you have the skills to do it?
  • Would you love doing it?
  • What would you have to say no to, to say yes to this?

That last question is the one that always hits me hardest. We are socialized as women to be accommodating and helpful, to fill gaps and meet everyone’s needs. But at what expense? Does it come at the expense of your own mental or physical health (would you have to shelve your workout or meditation practice because you don’t have enough time)? Would it consume time that you had allocated for other priorities? If so, where does it fit in your list of current priorities? And what falls off the bottom of the list? Does it risk taking you away from important events or time with people you love?

Saying no helps you be better

There are only so many hours in a day. If you add another yes to your list, that means you’re reallocating the time and energy from somewhere. And when you have nothing left to give, you’re inevitably taking it from your relationships with your family and with yourself.

If I’ve learned one thing through the loss of people and circumstances this past few years, it’s that the future isn’t guaranteed. This life is not about becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. This is your opportunity to be her, everyday. And no matter who she is, if she's living authentically, then she's not afraid of no. 

Say yes to saying no more often

One of the reasons women struggle to say no is that the word often comes with a side dish of guilt. If you know that no is hard for you, then I want you to watch the following workshop on YouTube. You can also download the free workbook here.


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