The Power of Saying NO

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Have you ever noticed that truly successful people have little trouble saying “no”? They may do it politely, but they do it and do it often. And they’re on to something – it’s the power of saying NO.

“No” is a control word, a word that has real power. When we use it, we’re in control. When we don’t, we’re open to the control of others.

By saying “no”, we guard our time, our efforts and even our money. When we say “yes”, or even “maybe”, it can mean open season on all three. If you’re a “yes-junkie”—a person who feels compelled to say “yes” to nearly any request for help from nearly anyone—you might be your own worst enemy.

The Power of Saying NO
The Power of Saying NO
If we’re going to get anywhere in life we need to focus on what it is that we do best. Life is multi-faceted, but we all have two or three things that are especially important, and that’s where being able to say “no” is critical. It’s the little word that when spoken emphatically gives us the space we need to do what we do best.

Learning to say no—and meaning it—frees you up to move on to the next order of business, to that thing that moves you forward in your life. Is it any wonder that successful people master this concept?

Why we’re reluctant to say NO

What are some of the reasons we might find it hard to say “no”?

  • We want to please others and saying “yes” usually accomplishes that
  • Saying “yes” is easy; saying “no” often opens up a line of questioning
  • We don’t like confrontation, and that happens a lot more when we say “no”
  • When we’re really thinking “maybe” or “I’ll see”, we instead default to “yes”; after all, we never want to seem indecisive
  • Saying “no” might indicate that we aren’t “team players”
  • Like a candy bar, “yes” brings a short term high—“no” can bring on a guilt trip
  • We learned to hate hearing “no” when we were small children and never outgrew it
  • The word “no” has a negative connotation and we don’t want to be negative
  • Saying “yes” has become a habit
  • We think “I’m a nice person, and nice people say YES!”

It would appear that our reasons for not wanting to say “no” have more to do with psychology and emotion than with reason and logic. And that’s the main purpose for setting up a list that highlights the reasons. It might be easier to get control of our fear of saying no if we can get a handle on the reasons why we do.

The problems we cause by refusing to say NO

Not being able to say “no” has a way of complicating our lives. Not only will the infrequent use of the word take us away from our main goals, but it also has the potential to complicate life by drawing us into situations we have no business being in. Consider the problems we bring on ourselves because we don’t want to say “no”:

We can over-extend ourselves. How many obligations can you juggle in life? The more you say “yes”, the more obligations you take on. Each of us has time and energy for only so much activity, and if we get pulled in too many directions we can quickly become part of the problems in life, not the solutions.

We become distracted. Focus is an underappreciated concept. The more directions we’re pulled in, the less focus we have. The less focus we give to our most important endeavors, the less successful we’ll be.

We set ourselves up to be manipulated by others. If you’re a yes-junkie, then others will always have undo control over your time and efforts. Some people can never do anything on their own while others are perpetually needy. You can’t fix that and helping them will never improve their circumstances. The best thing you can do for them is to cut them off and let them learn to fend for themselves. (More likely, they’ll find other yes-junkies!)

We damage our self-esteem. What usually happens when we say yes to someone is that we give them our time or our efforts. If we say yes to most requests that come across our paths, then we can degrade our own time and effort. In most cases, we’re giving away our resources—time and effort—for free. If we’re virtually giving them away, then they effectively become worthless. When what we have to offer doesn’t have value, we can question our own worth.

We help everyone accomplish their goals, but never accomplish our own. This is the deepest root of the problem. While it may seem noble to help others, that effort can drain our ability to go where we’re heading. If you find that you’re always missing the mark on your goals, the answer may be in your inability to say “no” to enable yourself to concentrate on what it is you truly need to be doing.

The Power of Saying NO

When we learn to say “no”, we begin to free up our time and energy to concentrate on what’s really important.

Let go of the “chief cook and bottle washer syndrome.” Each of us can wear only so many hats in life and still be effective. When we say “no”, we’re getting rid of them, and that’s a good thing. No matter how talented you may be, you can’t do it all. It’s just a delusion, and once its gone life gets more productive.

Change the expectations of those around you. People have a way of coming back again and again to those who help them. Have you ever noticed that people will go to some for help while avoiding others completely? That has to do with expectations—and you want to be in the second group. While it might feel good to be needed, it isn’t terribly productive! If you stop trying to put out the fires in everyone’s lives, they’ll start respecting your time. We all need that.

Ability to concentrate. Each of us has only so much time and energy to live our lives, so it’s important that we spend it on activities that will have the greatest impact. Better to accomplish one or two goals completely than to hit a dozen halfway.

“Nothing can add more power to your life than concentrating all your energies on a limited set of targets”—Nido Qubein

Make sense?

More free time. Accomplishing our goals is important, but so is having time to enjoy life. The more we say “no”, the fewer obligations we have, and the more time we have for everything, including rest and relaxation. There’s a double benefit to this as well: the better rested we are, the more effective we can be at what ever we do. Think of it as an energy multiplier.

Sometimes it seems as if we wander through life in a fog. So much is coming at us so quickly that we feel overwhelmed. It’s not that we can’t handle what’s coming at us—we usually can—we just can’t handle so much at once. One of the best ways to get control of this is by using that tiny but powerful word “no”. It blocks the distractions, intrusions and manufactured obligations that can slow us down and drain the life out of us.

Try saying “no” more frequently and see if you don’t find yourself having more time, energy—and success.

Do you find it hard to say “no”? Do you think it’s interfering with your life in any way?

( Photo by Horia Varlan )

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21 Responses to The Power of Saying NO

  1. Great article! This is a problem that I use to have (and even fairly recently), and it was very counterproductive.

    Honestly, I think having 2 kids has helped change that behavior for me. Who would have guessed…

  2. MR – YES! Having two kids helped me with this too! When you have kids you’re spread thin in the natural course, so something’s gotta give. The kids are your responsibility and they come first, and it then seems easier to say no to others. But I think we all struggle with this for the reasons given. I still have to catch myself, otherwise I might tend to over commit.

  3. Great post. Too often are we worried about what everyone else thinks – in our social lives, our careers, and even as individuals – that we will just say Yes to make others feel better about us.

    By saying No, you put action into your own hands and effectively draw the line in the sand. You’ll be more confident, happy, and will have more control in your life.

    That being said, there’s always a time and a place to say YES! I often get scowls from my girlfriend just for saying no to some chores – not needed haha.

  4. Dan – I agree, there is a time to say Yes, but most of us say it far too often. We could probably eliminate 50% of our problems in life, just by saying No more often. Good point on confidence–we seem to have it only when we have some control, and that’s what saying No can help us get.

  5. Hi Kevin, this was a big problem for me as well. I don’t like confrontations so I wouldn’t want to say no. I’ve gotten a lot better at setting priorities and not agreeing to do things that don’t advance those priorities. I also can avoid many situations where I think I will be asked for something I don’t want to do.

  6. Jennifer – Yeah, I kind of think of learning to say No as a problem avoidance strategy. By saying it up front we’re saving ourselves all kinds of complications.

  7. Kevin — In a work setting, there are plenty of good reasons to say ‘no’, as well. For example, taking on additional tasks that could be done by others when they take away from your unique tasks. If you’re spending time doing tasks that could be delegated to others, you aren’t able to accomplish tasks that only you can do!

    Of course, saying ‘no’ without a good reason isn’t recommended. If you don’t feel like it when you have time available or if you don’t like the person who’s asking, etc. Those types of situations can undermine your reputation.

    But I agree that ‘no’ is indeed a powerful term that definitely needs to be used from time to time!

  8. Chris – There are people in every business situation who say No for purely selfish reasons. They may come to work with the philosophy that they’re there to do the least amount of work. That’s obviously not what we’re talking about here or trying to encourage. It’s more a matter of making sure that we avoid entanglements so we can do what it is we’re there to do.

    This is going in an entirely different direction, but what I’ve found in work situations is that many offices have a Go To person, the guy or girl every one comes to at the first sign of trouble. And this person often ISN’T the manager! Often when promotions come around, the Go To person is passed over–not because they aren’t qualified, but because management wants them right where they are, putting out fires.

    That’s another compelling reason for saying No as often as necessary!

  9. I wish I knew the word NO way back in my 20’s – would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress. Now in my 50’s – I have no problem saying no. The sad part about all this, is that some folks take it personally and just do not understand it is not. I say no either because I don’t have the time or don’t feel like it. Great subject!

    My Blog: A Story of Hope!
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  10. Kevin — Ah, yes, the “curse” of being the best at what you do! The office firefighter, as it were. Sooner or later, those folks may end up going elsewhere because of being passed over. Instead, they should be moving up in your organization and help making everyone a high-level performer!

  11. Believe it or not, one of the most powerful and empowering words of the human vocabulary – regardless of language – is the term, No. It’s vibration and force has the ability to halt most actions, and waylay a host of conversations.

  12. Hi Kuyaben–Very true, which is why the critical question is WHEN it’s used. Sometimes we’re afraid to use it for various reasons–maybe we don’t want to disappoint someone or don’t want to seem somehow out of the loop. Most of us would avoid all kinds of problems and entanglements just by learning to use it a little bit more frequently. Starting with saying it to ourselves when we’re about to spend a bunch of money we don’t have!

  13. I think that’s true for most people. That’s why we have to become more purposeful about saying NO. Otherwise we default to agreeing to things we shouldn’t.

  14. I know you were speaking mainly about individual associations and acquaintances but I have expanded that to include civic and societal relationships. As I aged and realized how hard I worked for my money and my free time, I started saying “no” much more often. No to most tax referendums, no to pleas for donations, no to requests for volunteering. My time and money were so hard for me to obtain so now I am extremely selective in who I share both with. I do have a few charities I support, but I don’t hand over money to every hard luck case that I read about. After the first few awkward times, no becomes very easy to say.

  15. Hi Kathy – I know what you mean! My wife and I got into a couple of long-term volunteering situations, and both spun out of control. Since so few people volunteer, they need the ones who do to step up with unlimited contributions of time, effort and even money. I get why this happens, but it can force you to compromise other areas of your life.

    We also found out that some people volunteer just to get the tee-shirt (so to speak), while others carry all the work load. It’s a sad situation, but that’s probably just how it works, given human nature. That’s why you always need to be careful in these situations. Learning to say no takes on new importance!

  16. Hi Alexis – Well put, I have the same struggle. But my feeling bad is quickly overwhelmed by the good feeling of realizing the complications I spared myself by bowing out.

  17. Have you ever noticed that truly successful people have little trouble saying “no”? They may do it politely, but they do it and do it often. And they’re on to something – it’s the power of saying NO.

  18. Yes, it’s the best way to keep the decks clear in life so that we can focus on what’s most important.

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