How to Say No When it Counts

3 Strategies for Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries

Sometimes you just have to say no. That isn’t always easy. But there are strategies that can help say no when you need to—and save your time, energy, and sanity in the process.

Motivational speaker Byron V. Garrett, my former boss at National PTA, often says that you only have twelve hours a day to take care of business. This means culling away the drive-bys and extraneous requests that can take away from achieving your goals.

Just as importantly, some requests require you to reach way beyond your knowledge and skill set. Certainly, failure is a way of learning. But for those in need of your help, the last thing they need is for you to deliver subpar work.

Of course, this is easier said than done. By nature, we are people-pleasers and we hate to disappoint. When it comes to bosses, saying no can also be career-limiting. Saying no to your close relatives can cause discord in the family. So you will need these three important steps to help you say no—and even end up being helpful to those who make the ask.

1. Organize yourself

Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

When you’re not focused, it is hard to decline other people’s requests. We say yes to anything that looks fun, interesting, or advantageous. To combat this tendency, end your work day by setting up a list of your priorities for the next. This includes reviewing the following day’s schedule and thinking through how much time it will really take to complete what’s on your agenda.

Another way to focus is by setting aside time during the workweek for “office hours” as done by college professors. You can then advise colleagues and others that they can use that hour or so to make requests, seek advice, and discuss options. Limiting your time frame is not only helpful to your business partners, it even helps you gain focus on your priorities.

This can also be done with friends and family. By setting a time when requests can be discussed, you force your brother and best friend to think about how important their request really is—and also empower them to seek out others for help. It also means you get to reclaim your own valuable time.

2. Accept your limitations

We all like to think we are superheroes. But this isn’t anywhere close to the truth. As smart and talented you may be, you must accept your limitations. This means saying no.

Saying yes to a task does no good for friends and family when you are a poor fit for it. Sure, you can look over a home buying contract. But if you have no expertise in real estate law your advice could end up costing them money and time in court. Saying no can be a win-win for both you and the person making the ask.

Career considerations also come into play. As Price M. Cobbs and Judith L. Turnock explain in Cracking the Corporate Code, that new task or position your boss asks you to do can take you off your chosen career path, curtailing opportunities for future advancement. Saying no means staying focused on your achievement.

You may feel guilty about saying no. After all, as high-performing people, we aim to please and hate making excuses. But in accepting your limitations, you are assuaging your angst and also acknowledging that you can’t be all things to all people.

3. Offer alternatives

Keep this in mind, though: Saying no often isn’t enough. You still have to offer solutions that can help family, friends, colleagues, and bosses address their issues.

This starts before you say no by giving thought to the request as well as how you will reject it. Since some people will push back on a simple no, it makes sense to think through a comprehensive-yet-succinct response before giving an answer. Also, be sure to thank the person for making the ask; it is the polite thing to do.

Consultant and author Chris Brogan suggests that you should recommend another colleague within your network or organization to take on a task or role. This move gives the person making the request a new resource while your colleague gains an endorsement of their expertise and work product that they will greatly appreciate and pay forward.

You can also suggest alternative resources and approaches that can actually be more helpful to the person making the request. Because you bring a clear mind to the issue at hand, your suggestions can be incredibly helpful to a harried friend or relative.

Finally, there are some requests to which you cannot (and should not) say no. Your spouse’s honey-do list is one. Your son or daughter’s request for a hug or play time is another. Then there are those times you must be helpful because the world is run on giving each other a hand. Because no is often most powerful when you are willing to say yes to those who need it most.

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