This past year I’ve been lucky enough to have an in-depth look at where women struggle and thrive in their career. One of the major themes that keep coming up is the difficulty women have with saying no. Sometimes they know that they have a problem with saying no, but other times it’s disguised with language like: “I keep getting too much work put on my plate” and “Ugh. I can’t believe they just asked me to do that.”

This difficulty in saying ‘no’ often ends in one of two ways:

1 – We say yes when we really want to say no. More than half of American workers say they are overworked and burned out, which means this is probably a popular choice for most people.

2 – We lead with “I’m sorry”. Apologizing can undermine our message, can have negative repercussions for women at work (sorry), can leave us feeling guilty, and, according to economist and consultant Caroline Weiss, can put the other person on the defensive.

So if saying no feels difficult, it’s because it can be.

When I was leaving my corporate job I was secretly relieved that I never had to say no to a boss again. I tend to be a people pleaser, and saying no felt like it went against who I was as a person. I was that annoying kid who always scrambled to say yes when the teacher asked for volunteers. As my own boss, I was sure that my hesitation to say no wouldn’t be an issue ever again.

That relief lasted for about a day before I realized that my success would hinge on my ability to say no, and say no well. I now have clients, editors, collaborators, and customers, and saying no has become a daily habit. This could crush my people pleasing spirit and leave me feeling drained all day. But I instead learned and honed the technique William Ury outlines in The Power of A Positive No.

Ury argues that our desire to say no doesn’t derive from our desire to be contradictory or incite conflict, but comes from our desire to stand up for our deeper yes.

When I first heard this I was skeptical. Sometimes don’t I say no (or want to say no) just because I don’t like what’s being proposed?

After tracking this, I realized that my no’s often came from a deeper yes. And using his simple framework makes saying no so much easier.

Yes! No. Yes?

In Ury’s positive no approach, your response will be 3 part: Yes! No. Yes? The first Yes! The core value you want to protect. The No is respectful (and clear). And the third yes? Is a way to further your relationship.

Let’s say you’ve just been given a project that you really don’t have time to do. If you decide to actually say no, the old approach might sound like:

“I’m sorry, I really don’t know how I’m going to take on this project. I have a lot of other things on my plate and I’m already working a ton. If I took this on I’d have to stay even later or do it on the weekend and I just don’t have that time.”

How does your response change with the Yes! No. Yes?

“I’m really committed to making sure our business performs well this year and I’m currently spending most of my time working hard on the project launch, which is a top priority for our group [core value to protect]. Because the launch is taking up most of my time, I don’t have the bandwidth necessary to do the best job possible on this new project and I won’t be able to take it on right now [your no]. Could we delay the start of this next project until after our product launch? [further your relationship by offering a new solution]”

Rather than avoiding the no and becoming overwhelmed or starting with an “I’m sorry” that both undermines your message and puts the other party on the defensive, the yes! No. Yes! solution gets you to a positive no that feels better on both sides.

When I read about this approach for the first time, I was eager to put it to work. Shortly after, I was working with a new client who wanted to change the timeline of the work that we do. Old me would’ve jumped at the ‘yes’ because how could I say no to the person paying me to do the work? And I probably would’ve spent nights and weekends trying to make the new timeline work.

Rather than avoid or lead with an “I’m sorry”, I replied: “Because I really want to make sure that you are happy with the end result, I put together a timeline based on what past clients have experienced and needed. Changing it right now isn’t going to ensure you get the best results so let’s leave it as is for right now. If we get to the mid-point and you feel confident to move forward, faster, we can work together to create a new plan to accelerate the end of our project.”
The discussion was over, she accepted my no, and we worked together fabulously.

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