The life-changing art of saying no

The life-changing art of saying no

Here at Nest, we recently reached out to Dr Alice Garner, who does amazing work in the history department, and asked for an interview. We received this elegant reply:

‘I’m currently teaching high school 4 days a week and shooting a documentary on my other 3 days; plus I have 3 kids at home! So at the moment I’m having to say no to everything else just to survive. Perhaps if you could come back to me in about 3 months I might be in a position to contribute. I hope you understand. Re advice in juggling careers and parenthood, I’ve learnt that it’s necessary to say ‘no’ sometimes… I’m sorry it’s to you right now.’

Although disappointed we didn’t get to chat with Dr Garner, we were impressed with her response and it got us thinking about the art of saying no.

Toxic Niceness

Despite Elton John’s claims to the contrary, ‘sorry’ isn’t really the hardest word. For a lot of people, the hardest word to say is ‘no’.

People often end up saying yes to a lot of things they don’t really want to do. Some of them have to be done, of course – sometimes you just have to adult no matter how much you’d rather play World of Warcraft than work for a living.

But our lives are swamped with ‘yes’ that really ought to be ‘no’ if we want to stay healthy and productive.

Elizabeth Hilts, author of Getting in Touch with Your Inner Bitch, says that women often don’t say no because of ‘Toxic Niceness’ – the result of the fact that girls are trained from birth to always be nice, even at the expense of their own time, health and needs. When Toxic Niceness takes hold, and women end up overworked, underpaid, overcommitted and underappreciated, as well as feeling very stressed and yet guilty that they’re not doing enough.

The yes trap

Of course, it’s not only women who fall into the Yes Trap.

Anyone who is establishing a career has a tendency to say yes to everything and everyone, from the fear that opportunities lost will never be regained. Some people say yes to everything because they think they’re the only ones who can do the job properly. Some people think that they’re letting others down by using ‘no’.

The truth is that saying yes constantly could be undermining your efforts. Relentless ‘yessing’ can leave you exhausted and stressed, which has a negative impact on your personal and business relationships, and your emotional, mental and physical health.

In fact, people are often best served by a timely ‘No’, especially if the no comes with a side-serving of alternatives.

If you’re the only one who knows how to do the job, you need to mentor someone else to the task. Stepping back allows others – both at work and at home – to step up, giving them a chance to learn, grow and build confidence.

Choosing when to say no

If you’re concerned that saying no to business opportunities will lead to those openings drying up, remember that not every prospect is right for you. You need to shape your career by choosing opportunities that are most closely aligned with your skills and interests.

You should also value your skills, and say no to opportunities and clients who don’t value them too. If the job is underpaid or not to your advantage in another way, is it really something you want to say yes to?

Because saying yes to one thing often means saying no to another. And of course, vice versa. Every time you say no to one thing, you’re saying yes to something else – to yourself, your career, your colleagues or your family.

Sometimes ‘no’ is saying yes to a task that’s more in line with your goals; it’s saying yes to downtime so you can be more productive and do better work later; it’s saying yes to valuing your skills and your time.

Saying a strategic ‘no’

As demonstrated by Alice Garner, a no doesn’t have to be abrupt. One of the reasons people say yes instead of no is because they don’t want to be rude. You can turn a no into a ‘No, not yet’, or a ‘No, but here’s an alternative’.

Discern, plan, choose, organise. Jettison Toxic Niceness but remain polite. Be strategic with your nos and your yesses to build the life and career you want.

It’s time to throw off saying yes to everything and embrace the life-changing art of saying no.


Have you been saying no to things at the expense of saying yes to postgraduate study? Book a one on one consultation and discuss your options with an expert.