Sunday, March 20, 2011

Taking the Guilt Out of "No"

By Mary Byers

Leaders who are good at what they do, and do what they say they'll do (which is likely you since you're reading this blog), are going to be asked to do a lot of things. As a result, they are going to have to say no more often than the average woman.

Think about it. When a task needs to be done, we don't ask a lazy person to do it. And we certainly don't ask an incompetent person to do it. We ask competent, reliable and gifted people to tackle the task. That's also likely you.

Because of your competence and reliability, you are likely very busy. And because of your talents and skill, you'll be asked to do more than the average person. Both of which mean you'll have to turn down more opportunities. There's a potential guilt trap here. Chances are the more you say no, the guiltier you'll feel. This is the challenge of leaders: they'll be asked to do more, and therefore, they have to say no more.

Acknowledging this is freeing.

I was in my laundry room, feeling guilty for saying no when I realized the value of fully grasping this paradox: busy people are not just busy about things, they also must be busy saying no simply because they are busy. I now realize that the busier the season of life I am in, the more I'll have to say no. But saying no doesn't seem like something to feel guilty about anymore. Instead, it feels like exercising wisdom so that I'm sure not to neglect the things that are making me busy in the first place. This is a complicated but important concept for leaders.

Busyness breeds more busyness. The busier you are, the more you'll be asked to do. And the more you're asked to do, the more you'll have to say no. This may be the biggest challenge for competent and reliable people: understanding that being busy requires more "no" saying than other women have to do. Accepting this fact makes it easier to say no without guilt.

If you routinely say "Sure, I'd be happy to!" before you consider your schedule or even ask yourself if you're interested in what you've been asked to do, use this two-step sanity saver to transform your life. Ask:

1. What does it entail?
2. When do you need to know by?

Rather than saying yes without thinking, this mindful approach to measuring opportunities gives you the time and space to pray about the opportunity; time to check your calendar to see how it will affect other areas of your life; and time to talk to your family if the commitment will pull you away from them more than usual. And, if you have to turn down the activity, it gives you the time and distance necessary to decide how best to do so.

This two-step sanity saver is a simple process but it will have a powerful effect on your leadership. You are assuring that your decision-making is more mindful and deliberate and you'll consistently make better decisions as a result.

Mary Byers is author of How to Say No...And Live to Tell About It and the managing editor of FullFill™.


  1. A helpful, timely article as the chaos threatens to consume us like a tsunami. With wisdom one can say "no" graciously and keep order by asking two simple questions.

  2. Mary,

    Thank you for your further insights on saying no. While it's not always easy to do, I have found tremendous power in doing so myself. In fact I have a "stop doing" or "no" list to help with this. :)

    With your permission I would love to be able to share your two-step sanity saver in my work-life balance classes I teach. People could really benefit from them.

    Thanks again,
    Janae Bower

  3. Juliette, Manchester, England, UkMarch 21, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    This really was a timely word for me today! I opened this email and at the same time got a call from a colleague. We have offered to help a sister project in trouble but feel we are now being over burdened by numerous tasks. I stressed to my manager that I felt that our project would suffer if we committed too much of our time at the other project. He insisted that we needed to do what he was asking even though it was within our power to say 'no' to offering any help at all. I stood my ground and assertively outlined what we were realistically able to do and that we would have to say 'no' to anything else. It felt like a battle and I had to check my attitude, manner etc to make sure I was not being undermining. I felt I was protecting our project and staff team from future burn out. After the phone call I proceeded to read the aritcle which I found to be very encouraging. When I look back over my 5 years in leadership I can see how God has taken me on a journey. In the early days I felt I had to please everyone and wanted everyone to be pleased with me. I have had to learn many lessons most of which have been costly and painful. But today, knowing that I can actually say 'no' when it counts makes me feel that I am finally coming home! Thanks for these pearls!

  4. Thank you, Mary! I just said "no" today, and sometimes I tire of it. Thank you. Do you believe we as females tend to feel more obligated to give an explanation for our "nos?" I do. Perhaps we learn to say no and let it rest.