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The Gentle Art of Saying No


Many of us are afraid of saying no because we fear we may be passing up a golden opportunity. If we say no to this, will they ask again? Will another opportunity come? This fear of saying no stems from several limiting beliefs we have about the world and who we are.

In actuality it is wise to turn down certain opportunities to leave room for something better suited to us. It’s smart to say no to the good in pursuit of what is best for us—be it a job, a client or a relationship.

However, in order to gently turn someone down, we need to acknowledge these fears (false evidence appearing real), get clear on our top values and establish and enforce healthy boundaries.

Let’s explore some of these false pieces of evidence that feel real in the moment.

  • We don’t want to disappoint or hurt someone for fear they may never approach us again.

  • We fear they may look at us as cherry pickers or elitists if we say no. We want to avoid being seen as arrogant or selfish.

  • We don't know if there will be another offer, so we have to take what we can when we can. The bird in the hand…

  • We have a fear of missing out (FOMO). We think, “Maybe if I did take this, it could lead to something I truly want.”

  • We won’t be able to demonstrate the greatness of who we are or what we deliver. Will they see us as professionally competent if we don’t have the opportunity to directly prove it to them?

  • We do not want to be seen as ungrateful. We think we should be thankful for those opportunities that come our way and graciously accept them.

  • We avoid saying “no” when we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else. We don’t like to argue, and being a “yes” person seems an easy way of avoiding drama and keeping the status quo in the relationship.

What is the way out of the FEAR box?

It is critically important that we know our values, so that when we are faced with an opportunity that is not in alignment with them we can choose in favor of our values instead. If we say yes to what is not in alignment with who we are in our core, we experience anxiety and frustration. If we honor what we believe in and stand for, we can then make a healthy decision to say “no” to what is not in alignment with our life’s direction and purpose.

We are not ungrateful if we say no to an opportunity that is not good for us. We are wise. What we say no to becomes an opportunity for someone else who may be better fitted to it to thrive. In fact, it is generous in that sense.

It is not selfish to choose in favor of what serves us. This is how we and those around us will prosper—we do what is right for us, so that they can do what is right for them.

How to Craft a Gentle No

Crafting a polite but firm “no” takes time and practice. Consider these tips in order to do it well:

  1. You need to know what you can say instead of “yes”. You need to have a ready answer so that when fear strikes, you will not lose your presence and accidentally say “yes”. Next, you need to try it out: roll it off your tongue a few times until you find the words that feel truly authentic and comfortable for you.

  2. Give yourself time before responding. Replace an instant yes with, “Thank you for thinking of me. Let me give this opportunity careful consideration before I respond.” Make the decision under as little pressure as possible, so you carve out time to reflect and make decisions based on your values and not your fears.

  3. Know your core values. Like a budget is a pre-determined decision of what you will spend, let your values be a pre-determined decision of what you will do. Values drive decisions. Are you clear about your top ten? Define them now.

  4. Establish and enforce healthy boundaries. Having boundaries means being clear about what you are willing to do and what you are not and when. This, too, needs to be clearly defined in advance. If you start building your boundaries when someone asks, the boundary will not be finished in time. Get clear as to what will serve you now, so that when the time comes, a simple and polite “After giving this careful consideration, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to take on this project at this time” will do. Having a well-defined boundary leads to turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible which supports your ultimate growth and development.

  5. Do not apologize. While being kind and gracious is important, apologizing for honoring your priorities makes your decision sound weaker and dishonors you and your process. You need to be gentle but firm and unapologetic. After all, there is nothing to be sorry for.

Saying no does not have to be difficult or damaging to your relationship. You can generously acknowledge the offer and thank them abundantly for thinking of you while sharing that it is not the right fit for you at this time.

Don’t fill your calendar with projects that defuse your focus, create burnout and preclude you from seeking what you truly want. It’s not good for your career or your well-being. As the late Steve Jobs once said: “Focus is about saying no.” Building the habit of saying no will free you up to focus on opportunities that align with your purpose, creating more joy, flow and ease in your life!

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