Learn to say no so you can say yes to successAug 30, 2022
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. But yes is a dangerous word, especially 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). 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 and life that fills your soul.
Is "no" a hard word for you?
It is for me, but I'm getting a lot better at it.
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).
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 contracts were with what I actually wanted to do in my business. I was basically recreating my old 9-5 where I traded time for money.
The problem with short term thinking was that I wasn't growing my intellectual property, which is the most significant asset I own. And the same goes for you. Did you get into business so you could simply do the same thing you were doing for your last employer - trading time for money? Or did you make the leap because you saw the potential of something greater for yourself? Did you dream of building something that would not just pay your bills, but also improve your life and the lives of the people you touch through your business?
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 discern the parts of them that I should have said no to (or charged an additional fee for).
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.
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 revenue sources that don't energize you
This is a hard one 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 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 which steps to take for success, and not walk beside them as they make mistake after mistake.
Realizing that, I came to see that I am more an advisor than a coach. I'm happy to have one-off or a couple of sessions to work through a strategy, but I'm not at my best in coming to a long-term coaching relationship. Besides, there are coaches out there who are amazing at what they do. I'd much rather you go and see them and I'd rather offer referrals than try to fit myself into what you need (see the bottom of this post for two of my favorites).
FYI if you're looking for a coach, I have a few favorites. Geraldine De Braune was the coach who helped me through a major life transition and held space for me as I envisioned my business as I completed my Great Big Journey (currently open for its very last enrolment ever). Melissa Giller is incredible for women who are reclaiming their own lives while raising children and pursuing their careers; if this is you, be sure to download her podcast Life with Soul (and check out episode 14 with me!).
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 but I have great skills? 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 to some things means saying yes to others
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 my intellectual property. 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.
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 weeks to write. While I was away from my office this summer, I wrote every single day, creating the first draft of my manuscript for my first book (yes, of course, it’s about negotiation). I would never had taken this time if I was in my office, working on contracts all summer.
I also took the time to sit in grief. I spent two solid days playing and replaying my job loss in my head. I spent time sitting in my feelings and exploring what made me feel invalidated, unwanted, unimportant. I replayed conversations, wrote draft letters of protest, defending my honour, and let myself be sad for what would never come to be in the career that I had carefully pursued for almost 20 years. I grieved what was lost and allowed that loss to become space where I could invite in new opportunities. I mapped my future plans not against a series of achievements I hoped to collect, but against the lifestyle and feelings I wanted to live every day.
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 contracts at 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:
- 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?
Remember the cost of no
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.