3 Ways Successful Women Say "No" At Work, According to a Career Coach

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Katie Baird 81
Helping Women Traverse Transitions
May 18, 2024 at 6:41AM UTC

Whether it’s a suggestion from your boss to add another strategic initiative to your plate, an ask to volunteer as a panel moderator, a client request to expedite a deliverable, an invitation to chair your college reunion committee, a try a new on-demand workout or the need to organize a playdate— the odds are, you’re constantly fielding requests that demand more of your time.

The data-driven truth reveals that women have more trouble setting boundaries than men. This is also true for related behaviors like people-pleasing and avoiding direct negotiations. It’s not surprising that, as a coach focused on women's career transitions and leadership development, a significant amount of my coaching work involves helping highly motivated individuals recognize these actions in themselves and form new, more productive habits. 

Successful women know what their time is worth. They know what to say no to and how to say no. Both are important. Maximizing your potential and talent is about being intentional and purposeful about your choices. Here are three ways successful women learn how to say no.

1. Realize the power and opportunity of no.

Learning to say no is such an empowering capability— it can free your time and mental space to focus on what matters most or is most impactful. There should be a clear, distinct line from your daily endeavors to your priorities, long-term goals and core values. This ultimately demonstrates the continuity between your choices and your definition of success. It also signifies intentionality and self-awareness.

Try stress-testing your choices and ask yourself one simple question before agreeing to another commitment. Think, “If I’m saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?” Or, more simply: “Will saying yes to this help me?”

2. Start small.

Behavior change is key. You need to experience that power for yourself—not just be told that there is power (and freedom) in declining an invitation. Remember, a powerful "no" isn’t about shirking responsibility, burning bridges or demonstrating a lack of desire to prove your value. When you say no strategically you indicate the exact opposite. Start small and say no to the least energizing, relevant or impactful item on your list. Then, use that newfound time for something that aligns with your values or goals….or use that time to relax and decompress. There is equal value in protecting time to do nothing.

3. Bring a solution-oriented mindset.

Maintaining your boundaries is even more transformative when you can simultaneously help others. In my coaching work, I often leverage and share the benefits of solution-focused questions—also commonly known as empowering questions. Asking these problem-solving questions frees people to think about what’s possible. They can consider their pathways to success rather than churning on the issue. 

This is a great approach to leverage when saying no, particularly if that one word feels too confrontational in context. If a firm and direct “no” is not appropriate for the situation at hand, consider saying “No, and what other options can we consider?” or “No, however {outline XYZ next-best alternative}” or “No, not at this time but {suggest XYZ future opportunity to revisit}.” Just make sure you don’t end up in the realm of over-explaining, apologizing or being vague. You have the right to say no. Own it.

This article was written by an FGB contributor.

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