Presented in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and The Myth of the Nice Girl by Fran Hauser.
Saying “no” can be scary. Some of us avoid saying “no” by either saying “yes” or avoiding answering the request altogether (oops). But here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with saying “no” to things other people ask you to do (unless, in most cases, it’s your boss), whether it’s a night out with a friend, a “can-I-pick-your-brain” request from an acquaintance, or something else. It’s completely within your right to own your time, your life, and make decisions that will make you happy, not miserable! Plus, protecting your time ultimately means more time to practice self-care.
With all that said, for those of us who have been taught to be empathetic and nice, saying “no” can be particularly, excruciatingly difficult. It feels like we’re disappointing someone, letting them down, or displeasing them in some way, especially if they’re a friend or someone you like or admire professionally.
Fran Hauser’s new book, The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate,, perfectly explores this awkward tension between trying to be “nice” while also finding success in your career. There’s an entire chapter on setting boundaries and saying no which, as we’ve discussed previously on Girls’ Night In, is a key piece of practicing self-care.
To help us protect our time, we asked some of our favorite leading ladies to share with us their practical advice, strategies, and tactics for setting boundaries and saying “no” in a kind way.
Our panel of leading ladies:
Almila Kakinc-Dodd, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Thirlby
Carolyn Witte, CEO and Founder of Ask Tia
Claire Wasserman, Founder of Ladies Get Paid
Q: How do you personally determine when it’s right to say ‘no’ to an ask or opportunity?
Claire: I ask myself three questions:
Is this in line with my values?
Will it add significant value to my life? (Skills, increase my network, etc.)
What will I be sacrificing to take on this opportunity?
Carolyn: As someone who hates saying “no,” I like to instead flip these moments on their head and ask myself — when (or why) should I say “yes” ? A few criteria for absolutes “yes’s” in my mind:
When close friends or family need me, always.
When something sounds really, really, really fun or memorable, and I know the opportunity is rare.
When I’m genuinely touched or impressed by someone (I’m a sucker for cold emails that drip with passion and sincerity!)
Almila: The “yes” & “no” in life, for me, is a balance of “want” versus “should.” We cannot do only the “should,” or else we end up should-ing all over ourselves. I then ask myself a few questions: why do I feel like I “should” be committing to this particular opportunity? If I do, what area(s) of my life might be impacted? Is this opportunity worth my time & valuing me in my contributions? If any of those answers are a “no” or make me hesitant, I will likely say “no” to the ask.
Q: Can you think of a recent example of how you said “no” to an ask or opportunity, that our readers could emulate?
Claire: Some sample scripts:
“This sounds like a great opportunity! Unfortunately though, I have to decline. I’m trying to practice more self-care in my life and don’t want to overcommit :)”
“I’m so honored you asked me to participate! However, I’m super tied up right now and wouldn’t want to overcommit and let you down. Let me think about if there’s anyone else in my network I can refer you to.”
Carolyn: I recently said “no” to a very close friend’s bachelorette, which may sound kind of silly, but for some reason was super hard for me as I try not to let work entirely trump my personal life. Sometimes though, you can’t make it all happen. I had a big Tia launch that week, and couldn’t fathom flying across the country with all the unknown fires that were bound to occur. Having learned my lesson from pushing myself beyond my limits, I simply picked up the phone and explained to her why I couldn’t be there to celebrate her, which of course she understood as any good friend would. The takeaway here is that more often than not, the fear of disappointing others when you say “no” is in our heads. Genuine candor can go a long way.
Almila: An example script: “As much as I would be honoured to be a part of this, my current commitments would not allow me to be as fully present as I’d like for this. Please do let me know if such an opportunity presents itself again in the future! Thank you for thinking of me.”
Q: What is your general outlook on saying no, and how has it evolved over the years?
Claire: I believe in saying yes to pretty much everything when you’re just starting your career. You never know who you’re going to meet, the skills you’ll gain, etc. That being said, be in sync with your physical and mental health so you can prevent burnout before it happens. Speaking of burnout…my career has been a series of going super hard and then burning out. Then going super hard and burning out again. That’s actually worked pretty well from me since I’m able to give 1,000% to the projects I work on and then have a time of respite where I’m fully dedicated to getting recharged. Now that I have my own business, I can’t really tap out for a long period of time. So instead, I maintain a steady work flow and make sure to recharge in small ways throughout the week (digital detox on weekends, getting 8 hours of sleep every night, etc.)
Carolyn: I have historically been terrible at saying “no” — both because it feels like I’m disappointing people, and because I am genuinely interested in doing most things! Starting my own company though has forced me to change my outlook and recognize that saying no doesn’t mean closing doors, but rather, being more thoughtful about which doors I want to open. And that saying “no” to others starts with saying “no” to myself when enough is enough and I need a break.
Almila: Saying “no” to me now means unwinding my brain. That often entails going against my first instinct. I unwind that reactionary contractive tendency I have to say “no,” and not in the millennial “say ‘no’ more to others and yes to yourself” way. I sense when I’m limiting myself—that’s an involuntary “no.” Over the years, I have become more attuned to what I’m instinctually desiring versus the further layer of myself that knows what truly is going to be of service for all. An agreement to do something, after all, is between you and others.
For more ideas on how to advance your career without sacrificing your values, read The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate by Fran Hauser, available for purchase now wherever books are sold! This content was created in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Photo from the Mary Tyler Moore Show.