#027: How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty [Podcast]

If you’re like me, you have a tough time saying, “No.” As a recovering people-pleaser, I want to be helpful to people. I just hate disappointing them.

NO Painted on the Floor - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mattjeacock, Image #11710641

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mattjeacock

In this episode, I share some practical strategies I’ve learned—and am learning—for saying, “No,” in away that honors the person making the request and keeps me free to focus on what matters most.

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If we are going to accomplish our goals, we must learn to say no to those requests that threaten to take us off task and consume our resources.

If we don’t get better at saying, “No,” here’s what we risk:

  • Other people’s priorities will take precedence over ours.
  • Mere acquaintances—people we barely know!—will crowd out time with family and close friends.
  • We will not have the time we need for rest and recovery.
  • We will end up frustrated and stressed.
  • We won’t be able to say, “Yes,” to the really important things.

I recently heard Andy Stanley talking about this topic on his leadership podcast. He said,

The harsh reality of leadership is that the more successful we are, the less accessible we become. As things grow and as more people become involved, a leader can’t be equally accessible to all people. So then we are faced with the dilemma of who gets my time and who doesn’t, when do they get it, and and how much of it do they get.”

Your time is a zero sum game. When you say yes to one thing, you are simultaneously saying no to something else. The more successful you get, the more difficult this becomes. You find yourself saying no to good things—worthy things—in order to say yes to your most important priorities.

Here are eight practical suggestions for saying no without feeling guilty:

  1. Acknowledge your resources are finite.
  2. Determine who needs access to you and who doesn’t.
  3. Take practical steps to limit your accessibility.
  4. Make a list of common requests.
  5. Adopt a strategy for responding to these requests.

    William Ury outlines four strategies in his book, The Power of a Positive No:

    • Accommodation: We say Yes when we want to say No. This happens when we value the relationship of the person making the request above the importance of our own interests.
    • Attack: We say no poorly. This is a result of valuing our own interests above the importance of the relationship. Sometimes we are fearful or resentful of the request and overreact to the person asking.
    • Avoidance: We say nothing at all. Because we are afraid of offending the other party, we say nothing, hoping the problem will go away. It rarely does.
    • Affirmation: We use a formula of “Yes-No-Yes.” This is contrast to the ordinary “No” which begins with a No and ends with a No. A positive No begins with a “Yes” and ends with a “Yes.”
  6. Use e-mail templates to say no with grace.
  7. Delegate to people you trust.
  8. Accept the fact that you will be misunderstood.

Listener Questions

  1. Kevin Quinley asked, “How do you say no without coming across as a prima donna or doing something that is career-limiting like saying no to the boss or a key client?”
  2. Michele Cushatt asked, “Do I need to provide a long explanation for why I am saying ‘no’?”
  3. Michele also asked, “How do you maintain your resolve when you are dealing with someone pushy?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    I saw your post & the one linked below back-to-back in my RSS feed this morning. Since it’s on the same topic, I figured it’s worth sharing for your readers. It gives 3 good principles for saying, “No.”

    http://jonathanpearson.net/2012/10/03/no/

    • Jim Martin

      Joey, thanks for sharing this good post with us.

  • http://twitter.com/StuMcLaren Stu McLaren

    This is definitely an area I’ve struggled with – and then evidently over committed myself and doubled up the guilt (because I couldn’t  fulfill on all the commitments I couldn’t say “no” to!).

    Looking forward to listening to the podcast – thanks @MichaelHyatt:twitter

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Ah, guilt. The gift that keeps on giving. ;)

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    I think this podcast ties in well with your interview with John Maxwell. When he talked about delegating the things he doesn’t do well, and being able to focus on the few he is talented in, he makes a compelling case for saying no. And his coaching solution is brilliant  With a full cadre of coaches now he doesn’t have to say NO at all.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       I haven’t watched it yet, but you’ve convinced me. Sounds great!

  • http://www.thadthoughts.com/ Thad Puckett

    I needed this today.  We have been especially busy at work for the past month preparing for our offices to move (actually it seems like forever).  Having to say no to what people need is harder than I thought it would be, but there really is only so much time in a day.

    Thanks Michael!

  • http://kentrecommends.com/ Kent Faver

    Thanks Michael – what a wonderful, timely and practical episode!  My biggest pet peeve in the world, pet peeve doesn’t even do it justice, is people requesting things of me at church.  It truly boggles my mind that so many people enter a worship experience with business or their personal to-do list first and foremost on their minds. 

    • Jim Martin

      I can see how that would be very irritating.  I deal with this on another realm.  I have been a minister in a church for almost 20 years.  On any given Sunday, before and after our worship service, people will ask me for help for all kinds of things.  Years ago, I was far too quick about saying “yes” in those situations.  I have learned over the years to ask people to e-mail me or call me on Monday.   

      This gives me time to think about what my response will be.  Often, I will point them to someone who might be more equipped to give help than myself.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.evangraedavis.com/ Evan Grae Davis

    Michael, this podcast could not have come at a better time for me! I tend to be a people pleaser and historically have a hard time saying no. But I recently released my first feature length documentary film and have found myself in the middle of a storm of inquiries and requests. This podcast has given me much-needed guidelines for how to respond when I can’t do it all. Thank you!

    P.S. I will be attending the SCORRE Conference this month in Vail and am really looking forward to meeting you in person!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       So glad you’ll be joining us at SCORRE, Evan!

      • http://www.evangraedavis.com/ Evan Grae Davis

        Thanks, Michele! Looking forward to meeting you as well!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I look forward to meeting you, Evan. Thanks.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    This was one podcast episode I needed to hear. As I have been buidling my Platform and am starting to get more request, it’s been really hard to say No. I want to help as many people as I can but then get side-tracked from my own projects.

    I like the system you use and some of the tech things you do to say No but not make anyone feel unimportant. I will definitely be listening to this again and using the 8 prinicples mentioned.

  • http://twitter.com/bcarlson Benjamin Carlson

    Michael, while I found this podcast somewhat helpful, it was very much from your perspective, which is someone who has the luxury of saying “NO” to people requesting your time. I’m struggling in the area of saying “NO” to people who have hired me as a consultant, however are not respectful of my time. Everything is top priority, and has to be done now. I would really be interesting in hearing your thoughts on how to say “NO” to these requests. Thanks in advance!

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      That’s a tough situation Benjamin!  Saying “no” to your clients can put your income on the line.  

      I think it comes down to initial expectations.  I used to be a real estate agent handling almost 100 transactions a year.  It was a lot of fun and I had many happy clients.  I never wanted them to feel that I was too busy to tend to their needs.  

      I found that keeping clients happy while being able to manage so much business was all in setting the expectations in the beginning.   In the initial interviews for the job and as we started the relationship it was critical for me to snuff out the expectation that I needed to be available to them 24/7 (often assumed in that industry).  I let them know that my system would help them achieve their objectives (selling a home fast for top dollar) and that they would be hearing from me with updates at a scheduled time each week.  

      If they called at other times during the week, I used the Yes- No-Yes formula:  I sent them a prompt reply (same day) letting them know that (yes) I’ll be happy to address that issue, (no) but not right now.  (yes) Let’s talk about the issue at our scheduled weekly time.  This made for happy clients 99% of the time.

      Of course, not everyone agrees to work within your parameters.  A very small percentage of potential clients still thought that I should be available 24/7.  I referred them to a competitor.  

      When you set expectations and some of your clients are not willing to abide by those expectations, you might want to consider doing the same. :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I think it starts with owning the fact that you have the power to say “no.” As long as you think you can’t, you will feel that you are a victim.
      I have readers, advertisers, customers, event planners and others with expectations. I don’t think my world is probably much different than yours. When I say no, there are consequences—just as there are for you.
      I think it ultimately comes down to identifying your priorities and then making the hard choices—and I acknowledge they are hard—to live our lives well.
      We have more power than we think to set boundaries and “teach” people how we do business. Personally, I respect vendors who have boundaries. It conveys to me that they are principled and do business without integrity.

  • http://twitter.com/jaredeasley Jared Easley

    Great post. What advice would you give to someone who really wants to learn from people like yourself, but are unlikely to receive some of your personal time because of the necessary barriers that your family & schedule have required? I greatly appreciate everything that you are doing to help others. I plan to pay that forward.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Great question, Jared. I know of a handful of people I would love to learn from, but I also realize it’s unrealistic to expect one-on-one mentoring will happen. So I typically read their books, blogs, and draw whatever I can from those mediums. Also, I try to look for the wise men and women around me daily, those I might ordinarily miss because they’re not as “public” or “famous.”

      • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

         One of our good friends calls this “learning from the Giant-Slayers” :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I would first research what they have available that you may not be aware of. For example, I have written over 400,000 words here on my blog—about 6–7 full-length books. I would start there. Then I would see where I can connect with them in the future—conferences, teleseminars, etc.
      In my case, I am launching Platform University next month. It won’t be personal mentoring, but it will be take my content to the next level. Thanks for your question!

      • http://twitter.com/jaredeasley Jared Easley

        Thank you Michele & Michael. What is Platform University?

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          It is membership site that we will announce later this month. Stay tuned.

  • Martzbookz

    This was a really AWESOME post! Thank you so much for sharing this, Michael. 

  • http://www.jdsutter.me/ JD Sutter

    Fantastic episode, Michael. I appreciate you sharing your expertise via this podcast.

    I have also struggled with the issue of overcommitting myself so this information has been invaluable.

    I enjoy your show so much that I have nominated it in the 2012 Podcast Awards. Keep up the awesome work.

    -JD

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, J.D. I appreciate that!

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       JD, thanks for the idea. I followed your lead and put a vote in as well.

  • Mara Mattia

    Thanks, Michael.  Very timely and good podcast.   How do you discern when to say no to people who have helped you in the past and you feel obligated to return the favor and they expect a lot of ongoing interaction?  I grieve for the  many friends and family who have been helpful to me through the years but it would be impossible to repay them all for their kindnesses now that they are needy or in failing health.  There are so many and I don’t feel my “thank you’s” were sufficient enough at the time!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I don’t have a hard and fast rule-of-thumb. I think this does take discernment.

  • Pj Smitherman

    i think my weakness so to speak is the persistent ones. After so many tries, as long as they are nice, i have a hard time saying no

    • Jim Martin

      Pj, persistent people can be very challenging.  There are some people who have learned that if they are persistent, they can wear a person down until finally he/she says “yes.”  I have found that in such a situation, when I finally say “yes,” I most always regret a few minutes later.

  • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

    Michael, loving the great advice. In accomplishing some fun achievements in my life, it has always helped to remember to achieve the big things in life, it means cutting out some of the extra trimmings that don’t line up with my current priorities or goals. 

    I like the delegating to trusted people…if we don’t empower others to do things, they may never find their true potential.
    Many thanks!
    Jen
    Twitter@ TheIronJen

  • http://twitter.com/KimunyaMugo Kimunya Mugo

    On the spot Michael!

    Thank you for sharing this. About 12 years
    ago, I went through a 10-week in-depth class with a group from church.
    We were exploring “Boundaries”
    by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This helped me a great deal
    when I need to push back on issues that I am not able to respond to or
    fulfill. Needless to say,
    it has been one tough journey, especially when others try to take you
    on a guilt trip about your decision. However, they are responsible for
    their own feelings, I am not. It is just case of misplaced values on
    their end.

    ‘Boundaries’…highly recommended, of course in addition to this great podcast!

    Thanks Michael! 

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Kimunya, that’s a great book, isn’t it – especially for those of us who are so easily moved by guilt. Great reflection as well: “They are responsible for their own feelings, I am not.” It’s not that we don’t care about what they feel, we just decide that it’s not ours to carry.

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  • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

    I have had the hardest time saying no when requests come at me out of the blue, when they are sprung on me while walking through the hallway at work or some other informal setting. I’ve also had a horrible time remembering these requests. So, now I first try to listen and make sure the person feels that I’ve really heard them. Many times, this is a lot of what the request is about. The second thing I’ve learned to do is to ask them to send the request via email, explaining briefly that I want to think about their request and to not forget it. This puts the request back in their court and tests exactly how serious someone is about the ask.

    Great podcast!

    • http://twitter.com/KimunyaMugo Kimunya Mugo

       Aaron, asking someone to send an email always works. I used to get loads of requests, especially on the phone. Then I discovered the ‘magic pill’. Any time someone wanted to push me against the wall, I politely informed them that I was in the middle of something else and was not in a position to serve them adequately. Then I gave them my email address. You can be assured that nearly 90% did not send anything through. That also helped me to drastically cut down on my email ‘chatter’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy3102 Jeremy C. Jones

    really agree with you and I also have a standard way that I will say no with grace, I like to use 3 steps….let them know how honored I am they asked, let them know it’s not something I choose to pursue at this time, finally again thank them for the offer.

    Great audio!

  • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

    Thank you Michael.
    This is a great topic.  Boundaries is an excellent book.

    K, bye

  • Roberto Padron

    “yes” much needed reminder
    Thank you

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    I’m pretty good at saying “no” when things get too much to balance, but lately my plate is getting too full and it’s time to reconsider some of my commitments.  

  • http://dbartosik.com/ David Bartosik

    Unbelievably great list of managing your time.  Breaks my heart to say no—fellow people pleaser at heart—-but attempting to grow in this area!

  • Guest

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I have been praying over how to say “no” to my boss on a career move that is sideways to my goals. Funny – I am also in the midst of reading “Boundaries” – which I so desperately need! Tough stuff – but this helps to confirm that I am on the right track. Thank you!

  • http://www.likeateam.com/ Dale Roach, Like A Team

    Your advice on this subject is needed.  I recently had one of the authors on my blog write an article on “saying no!” (Saying No Can Be Healthy http://ow.ly/ehihB)  I am really glad to have found your posting. Your insight in regard to this subject is a powerful tool.  GREAT ADVICE! 

  • Robyn Mellar-Smith

    Thanks so much for this Michael.
    I am getting more requests for my time than I can deal with.
    Your podcast has helped me sort through my  thinking so thanks & blessings!

  • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

    I do struggle with saying no.  Being a people pleaser and a perfectionist can be a blessing and a curse.

    You can say no to this, but I have an idea for a future podcast.  I’d love to hear you cover the topic of mentoring.  I was recently asked to be someone’s mentor, and I value your experience on this topic.  I know you’ve blogged about it in the past, but I’d love to hear a podcast about it.  Thanks!

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  • http://twitter.com/AnnieMueller Annie Mueller

    Love this podcast, thanks so much. I just took a page of notes. One aspect that’s tough for me on saying No is on the interruptions that don’t give me a chance to think about or prepare a response – and that may also be part of my priorities. For example, I’m a freelance writer, I work from home, I’m also a mom of 4 young kids and I home school the oldest 2. So I have busy days with a long list of things to do, but there has to be some flex in there. Ministering to my neighbors is also one of my priorities, but I’m not sure which priority takes precedence – when I’ve just sat down for a few minutes of much-needed rest/recharge while the kids nap, and a neighbor interrupts with a request. Or I’m in the middle of school with the kids, and my husband calls with a quick request. All of these things ARE priority (taking care of self, ministering to neighbors, teaching kids, and helping husband) but knowing which to do when – and how to say no when the interruption/request is a NOW kind of thing, not a thing I can respond to later… Those situations throw me off. 

  • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com/ Tammy Helfrich

    I loved this podcast, Michael. Your advice was right on. Thanks!

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  • Maribel Agullo

    Thank you for this post. It seems like it was written expressly for me. Not being able to say NO has made all 5 risks you mention become a regular part of my life plus I am suffering from burnout. 

    I have listened to the Pcast several times and although I am not completely where I need to be I am using the Yes-No-Yes formula in saying NO and acknowledging to myself that recovery time, time spent with family and friends is even more important than saying YES (all the time to everyone). It will take awhile for me but I am happy that I have already been successful at saying some NO’s and sticking to it (although tempted to say YES!) .Thanks againMaribel

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  • Jenn

    I struggle with this especially with my grandson and his mother, I am practically raising my grandson, to the point that my husband wants to move away because I can’t say no to her or my grandson. My husband and I have no life together at this point. But I have listened to your advice and I am going to read some books on it to help me.  I especially relate  to that song Are you who you want to be? At 50 yrs. old I have the choice of who I want to be, but right now I could cry because I don’t. I am glad that I came across this  information I feel a little sense of power because of it. Thank you, Jenn

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Good, Jenn. Something else to consider is that you are modeling to your daughter how to take care of yourself. I would also encourage you to read the book, Boundaries. Powerful.

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