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Saying ‘No’ with grace

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When you start out in business, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by your never-ending to-do list which seems to grow arms and legs every day! There is always something else to be done, someone else looking to you for a decision and usually never enough time to do it all.

It’s useful early on to learn how to prioritise and focus only on the important work that needs to be done. That however can be easier said than done when so many tasks and a barrage of requests are competing for your attention – other people asking you to review a presentation, make a decision on a supplier, speak at an event and so on.

Like all of us, you only have 24 hours in the day and if you take on too many commitments your productivity will be down the pan pronto (Read – Solving the productivity puzzle). You’ll end up stressed, exhausted and irritable, getting little done well, if you get it done at all…

As women we can have a tendency to ‘people-please’ by saying yes, putting others first and ourselves last – it’s in our nature to nurture and support. Interestingly however, research shows that the ability to say no is quite closely linked to your self-confidence. If your confidence is a little on the low side, you may feel a bit nervous about upsetting others and rate their needs higher than your own. So, you end up people-pleasing and rarely saying no to requests. Which is great for everyone else, but not so good for you, your emotional well-being and your business.

Of course, there are many times in life and work when saying yes is appropriate, but equally there are many times when it is more appropriate to focus on you and say no. However, it can be really hard to say no. You may be worried about upsetting, disappointing or letting other people down. You don’t want to appear selfish, be disliked or lose a colleague or friend. But if you learn the art of the graceful no, you will soon find that not only do people accept your decision, but you actually earn their respect.

There are two key steps in this process of saying no gracefully. Firstly, working out if you want to say yes or no to a request. If it’s a yes, throw yourself into the request with all the passion and energy you can muster! And then secondly, if it’s a no, how to say it gracefully.

How do work out if you say yes or no?

  1. 1. Know Your Priorities

Assuming that you want to have a good work-life balance, by having enough time for family and friends as well as your new business, let’s focus here on assessing priorities for your business. Look at your short, medium and long term goals and clearly understand what you need to say yes or no to in order to achieve them. If you need to raise funding it may be a good idea to speak at a high-profile investor event to raise your profile, but perhaps not such a good use of your time to speak at a local networking event. Know your priorities and assess the request against them.

2. Value Your Time

Your time is the most valuable resource you have available to you and you need to guard it with a steely determination. It can be helpful to think about putting a value on your time, whether that’s £10 an hour or £100 an hour. Then, when you’re asked to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you can work out that the three-hour event someone would like you to attend would cost you £500 after including travelling time. Is that worth it, just to please someone else? This could be a major loss to your business!

3. Focus on the trade-off

Saying yes to one request means you have less time, energy and resources to do your other work, whether that is getting new customers, developing new products, doing your admin or learning a useful skill. Quantify the trade-off – do you really want to say yes and dilute the available time you have and know you need to deliver on key projects…just to be nice to someone else?

4. Separate the decision from the person

When we are asked to do something, it’s easy to confuse the request with our relationship with the person asking. Saying no to a request isn’t saying no to the person. It’s not easy, but try to separate the decision of yes/no from the person – it can help you make a clearer choice. Just as they have a right to ask you to do something, you have a right to refuse the request! You are not rejecting them, just refusing a request.

So how do you say no gracefully? Some top tips for saying no

1. Don’t apologise. It’s fairly common to start out saying ‘I’m sorry, but…’ as we think it sounds more polite. Whilst being polite is important when saying no, apologising sounds rather weak. You have nothing to apologise about guarding your time and looking after your business.

2. Remember that a clear ‘no’ can be more graceful – and helpful! – than a vague or noncommittal ‘yes’. A slow no can kill relationships and indeed a business.

3. Keep your response simple. If you want to say no, say it firmly, clearly and quickly. But remember that saying no with grace doesn’t mean you actually have to use the word ‘no’. Whilst a direct no can sometimes be the right answer, when it isn’t (or you want to feel more comfortable) you can say something like:

‘I’m really grateful for you asking me but right now isn’t a good time for me.’

‘This is something that I’d love to do, but right now I really need to focus on completing my business plan/marketing plan/getting ready for a conference.’

‘Thanks so much for asking me but I’m afraid it’s not convenient right now.’

And remember you don’t have to give a reason for saying no!

4. Buy yourself some time by saying something like ‘I’ll get back to you’, especially useful when you are caught off guard with a request. Then take time to think through the request. If you’d like to keep the option open, you could say:

‘Sounds great but I just don’t have the time just now. Perhaps you could check back with me in a couple of months?’

When the person does get back in touch you might then have time to fulfil their request.

5. If you really want to agree to the request but simply don’t have the resources to help just now, is there a compromise available? Can you suggest someone else, reduce the time requirement, change the timeframe? But please avoid offering a compromise solution if every bone in your body is screaming no to the request in the first place!

6. It can be easier to pre-empt requests than to say no to them after you have been asked! For example, if you suspect that requests on your time are likely to be made in an upcoming meeting, just say to everyone when you come into the meeting:

‘Just to let you know that this week and next are fully booked with some urgent projects, so I won’t be able to take on any new work.’

Whilst it’s always important to be polite – there is rarely ever a reason to be discourteous – saying yes all the time only hurts you. Establish your time boundaries early on in business – show everyone that your precious time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible. And do not under any circumstances feel guilty about it!

Saying no isn’t easy at first, but once you master saying no gracefully, you’ll find you are soon laser focused on the things that really matter to you and make the difference to your business.

Finally, remember that success in business is as much what you say no to as to what you say yes to. Just ask legendary billionaire investor Warren Buffet who says:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

At Women’s Business Centre we aim to be a go-to source of support for you as you work through your business journey. Sign up for exclusive access to additional content, resources and information.

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