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Summer Series: Protecting Your Boundaries - How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

The final weeks of summer are here. Most of us are wrapping up our vacations and getting ready to go back to our usual routines. In this last summer series article, before we go back to “normal”, I would like to invite you to set boundaries and to protect them by learning to be comfortable with saying no.

Pushing Back is Pushing Forward

Let’s be honest, pushing back or saying no is hard and it feels uncomfortable. As women we’ve been conditioned by society and our upbringing to accommodate and serve others and their priorities first. We feel shameful or selfish to prioritize our needs which leads to long term stress and eventual burnout.

This issue is even harder for many women of color and first gen professionals, many who have seen real poverty and experienced financial struggle. The emotional burden we experience may be overlooked due to our gifts of resilience and strength (when you are a BIPOC professional you need to work twice as hard, to get half as far). Burnout is a rampant problem amongst the BIPOC professional community as we tend to overestimate our ability to cope with added pressure. It pays to always take time to self reflect and avoid falling into the following burnout trap of these paradigms.

Learning how to say no in a way that still communicates that you are a team player, is essential for personal and professional success. For the record, saying no it’s also a sign that you have reached a level of professional and personal maturity and self awareness. Infact, a well timed pushback can elevate your position, as it demonstrates that you are aware of your limits and have the integrity to be clear about what you can deliver vs what you can't.

Three Reasons to Say, “Nah-thanks”

So how can you actually decide what to say no to? And more importantly how to do it in a way that you feel alright to do so?

1. You feel guilty or obligated

We have all been there. Somehow you say yes to one more deliverable, activity or commitment because you feel obligated or worse guilty. This scenario especially rings true in family situations. Here is the thing, when this happens is usually because we are unconsciously seeking the approval of others and rejecting oneself. So next time someone tries to cajole you into another guilt trip, rest assured that it is better to pass. Needless to say, you know very well how things ended last time you allowed that guilt to take you hostage and the energy drain that comes with it.

2. It does not contribute to your principles and goals

Assuming that you know your values and principles and have a clear vision for your career, this is a straightforward way to evaluate the request, and take a pass if necessary.

Here is how it works, before you say yes to anything knocking on your door, please answer these questions:

  • Is this action aligned with MY values and core principles?

  • Is this action the best way to advance my goal?

At the end of the day, it’s paramount that you prioritize yourself and your happiness if you like to take care of others.

3. The learning curve or task time is too taxing

How many times have we taken on new projects, volunteer, or other initiatives to only find ourselves swamped and scrambling to complete it? Yes, probably more than you can count on the palm of your hand. This is a classic example of “biting off more than you can chew”.

So here is the question that you should ask yourself:

  • Realistically how effectively can you complete the task fully in the time allowed?

The key word here is realistically. In this scenario you need to really have a candid conversation with yourself and look at not only the time it will take to complete such a request but also your skills, the prep time, etc. Sometimes it is better to decline an opportunity if the learning curve is too great, the overall time to complete is too taxing or it conflicts with other higher priority items.

Because I know that at this point you are probably nodding and asking, ok but how do I say “no” without burning bridges? Below I will give you four proven ways to say “thanks but no thanks” without damaging any relationships.

1. Yes + No + Yes

I like to call this approach the oreo. Just like an oreo, this approach is three layers of Yes+No+Yes. This framework was coined by William Ury, PhD. The whole point of this approach is to not elicit any negative feelings with a straight no but instead, to start with a yes, reject in the middle and then offer an alternative.

Here is an example:

  • “I love to take on that new project. However, I'm working on xyz projects right now. I’ll be more than happy to take this on once my plate is less full.”

2. Yes + Questions

Many of my clients love this approach. Requesting for more information is a very good way to turn things around. Here the person making the request either agrees to help or withdraw the request because of the many questions that you are asking. It's obvious that this request is not a good idea in the first place.

  • “Happy to help, do you mind if I ask you a few more questions? How are we going to find the information given that we are on a tight deadline? How do you like me to prioritize all the other deliverables that I have on my queue now? How is this request going to help the business priorities for the quarter?”

3. Appreciation + No + Brief Reason + Alternative

In this case you start straight with declining, then providing a brief short reason, and provide an alternative at the end.

  • “Thank you for keeping me on top of your mind, I’d like to come to the meeting but I’ve got an important report to finish by tomorrow. I can listen to the recording and give you my opinion afterwards if that is an option.”

4. A Disguised No

This is also known as a vague no or a maybe also works very well. Here is how to position it:

  • “This sounds really interesting, let me think about it and I’ll let you know.”

  • “My calendar is really full, but if something opens up, I’ll give you a call.”

  • “I would love to, I just need to wrap up a few other loose ends, but will get back to you as soon as possible.”

Simply Say No

To wrap things up, again, I know how difficult it is to say no. It’s a word that carries a confrontational connotation that many of us want to avoid. Yet, declining politely yet firmly can give you a lot of power. Look no further than what Simone Biles did a few weeks ago if you need some inspiration.

Remember, you always have a choice and sometimes a nice but firm, “Not at this moment” or “No thank you” is the most effective way to honor yourself and others.

Bottom line I want you to remember this: Your personal success and wellbeing, will depend greatly on your ability to say no.

So in these last weeks of summer, commit yourself to protect your boundaries with one of these ways of saying no. And if you need a little help, you can reach out via this form.


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