The Art of Saying No


Saying “no” to others’ requests can be so difficult for us that there are entire books devoted to the topic.

Whether it’s an invitation to serve on a board, run a committee, or volunteer for an event, we say “yes” for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the request benefits a cause that’s near and dear to our heart and we want to contribute in a significant way. Sometimes, it’s because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. There are also occasions we say yes because we want to be viewed as dependable or responsible. Or because there’s a certain status associated with the position and we crave that type of recognition.

The Trouble With Yes

Sometimes saying “yes” works. We bring energy to the task and make meaningful contributions to something that matters to us.

But when we say “yes” too often, we’re saying no to ourselves. We’re saying no to having enough margin in our lives. We’re saying no to other opportunities, whether that’s spending time with friends, family, exercising, working, enjoying hobbies, or finding quiet time to relax. When we’re spread too thin, no one wins.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I moved to Grand Rapids. As a big fan of the arts and theater, was excited to get involved with the community and jumped at the opportunity when I was asked to serve on the board of a local arts foundation.

As I got more involved with other organizations, I continued to say “yes” to opportunities, until the cost to my physical and emotional well-being became too high.

Although each of my commitments was to something that interested me, I finally realized that there’s only so much of Paige to go around. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I couldn’t dedicate the time I wanted to growing my business, and I certainly didn’t have time to invest in relationships that were important to me.

After this realization, I decided to establish criteria for when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to interesting opportunities.

Establishing Criteria

First, think about why you want to say yes to any particular commitment. Consider whether it’s an important cause, a fulfilling role, or if there’s another reason that makes it worth your time and energy.

Step one: Priorities

It’s tough to say “no” to anything, but particularly to things you’re interested in. To begin this process, I found it helpful to start by identifying my current life priorities, recognizing that these would change over time. Some areas you might identify as a priority include:

  • Raising children,

  • Focusing on your marriage or relationship with a significant other,

  • Exercise,

  • Spending time with friends,

  • Social engagements,

  • Growing your business or advancing your career

  • Investing in your education

  • Developing hobbies

  • Getting more sleep, or focusing on health


These are just a few ideas and yours will be specific to your life at this particular moment. Spend time articulating your top 3-4 priorities and write them down. Then commit decide that any commitment you make will leave adequate time for them.

Step 2: Determine Your Rules

After you identify your current life priorities and the criteria by which you’ll decide whether to say “yes” to commitments, you may want to create a few “rules” by which you’ll abide. For me, some of those rules are:

  • I only serve on one board a year.

  • I don’t serve on additional committees.

  • I mentor people with whom I have a connection but say no to other opportunities to mentor. (In other words, no random coffee meetings.)

Saying No

Many times we say “yes” because we’re afraid that by saying “no,” we’ll hurt someone’s feelings, or let someone down, or that they’ll think less of us. This emotional component can lead us to get bogged down with commitments that don’t bring us energy or capitalize on our skills.

Instead, by establishing priorities and criteria, we can politely decline requests without stress. While we never owe anyone an explanation for saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” I found it easier to say, “Thank you but I only serve on one board a year, and I’m commitment to X this year.” It’s kind, respectful, and professional, rather than personal.


Reap the Benefits

Saying “no” to some commitments gives you incredible freedom. You’ll experiences less of the stress, aggravation, regret, and resentment that can accompany being over-committed. You’ll have more time to devote to the things that really matter to you right now – the ones in line with the priorities you identified for this stage in your life. And best of all, you’ll be taking care of you in the process.

Is This Concept Work-Related?

While saying “no” to opportunities might seem to apply to hobbies and outside-of- work interests, there are ways in which it applies in the workplace, too. Even if the opportunity is work-related, you shouldn’t feel like you have to commit unless it fits the criteria you’ve established.

While we all strive to do our jobs well, there are opportunities to serve on projects or committees that aren’t directly related to our role at work. There are also occasions you may be asked to help with something peripherally job-related, like volunteering to coordinate an office holiday party or running a giving campaign, for example. If these things meet your criteria, go for it. But, even at work, be cognizant of saying “yes” too often.

As a manager, you can help your employees by trying to put the right person in the right role. When you align the commitment you ask someone to make with their skill set, you’re much more likely to have a successful outcome. Try to tap people who fit the role for whatever project, committee, or volunteer role you need to fill.

Millennial Guru

As a manager or employer, it’s in your best interest when employees to say “yes” to requests to join a committee or participating in a new project because it’s a good fit for them. When they do, it means they understand their strengths and can effectively put them to work for you.

Using the CliftonStrengths assessment, Millennial Guru can help your employees identify their natural talents, identify their priorities at home and work, and establish criteria for saying “yes” to things that bring them energy.

Schedule a no-commitment-required appointment today to find out more about how Millennial Guru can help you capitalize on your employees’ skills, fostering success and maximizing performance.

Paige Cornetet