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Learn To Say No

“No” is one of the shortest words in the English language, but it also one of the most difficult to say. Especially early in your career, the wrong no can have a big impact on your future with your employer. Failing to say no, however, can have big impacts on your health and well-being.

In The Freedom of No, author Jessie Sholl reviews the health risks of saying yes too often. According to Sholl, we have become a society that glorifies being busy and over scheduled. If we are honest, this tendency is especially true in the legal profession where attorneys often boast about their long hours and big caseloads. Consistently being overscheduled, though, puts your body into an extended period of flight or fight response. In other words, being over scheduled and under stress is the same for your body as living under constant threat.

The extended period of stress results in an elevated level of cortisol, your stress hormone. That taxes your nervous system, causes insomnia, and weakens your immune system. In other words, a careless yes can literally be bad for your health.

All of those factors make a good case for why we should master the power of saying “no”, but it doesn’t make it any easier to actually say no. Most of us worry that saying no will disappoint people who matter in our lives. Sometimes the person asking has a lot of power over our career and saying no could adversely impact our ability to move up in our organizations.

Sometimes we say yes to things because we want others to like us for doing what they wanted. After all, who doesn’t like the person who always says yes? The result is that our schedule is filled with activities that don’t really make us happy and often don’t reflect our own values or priorities. It is easy to end up feeling out of control in our lives.

In those times, it can be good to step back and take a big picture view of life. For example, if you are worried about disappointing someone, consider whether that person cares about you and your well-being. If the answer is yes, then the person may be disappointed by your no but they are not going to hold it against you. If you work for someone who will not accept a thoughtful no, the big picture view might be to consider if that’s a place you want to work for the long haul. We all have to make sacrifices from time to time, but if you have a boss who never accepts a no, is that situation going to improve in five years?

During my first year in practice, my supervising lawyer asked me to come in to work on Mother’s Day to assist with an urgent project. There were several other lawyers already coming in but he wanted me there because it was a good learning experience. I told him no. When he attempted to pressure me about my decision I simply explained that while I loved my job and worked very hard at it, there were some things in life that mattered more to me, like my relationship with family. While I certainly worried about my decision at the time, establishing those boundaries early in our working relationship helped lead to a more productive working relationship later. It was a difficult no to give, but ultimately the right answer for me.

No is seldom easy, but it is immensely powerful. Mastering “no” is the first step to taking greater control over your life and your career. Take some time this week to look at your commitments. Are you finding yourself overscheduled? Is part of what is filling your schedule activities that don’t reflect your priorities and values? It might be time for you to work on saying no and taking back your life.


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