How to Say No

Dec 8, 2020

Practical tips to optimize time and impact.

There is a definite theme of saying YES! in most of my posts. I believe in the power of yes before we are ready, yes when we aren’t sure, yes when we are nervous, and generally taking action proactively (saying yes to ourselves) and being helpful or leaning into an offered opportunity (saying yes to others).


What we say “no” to (or choose not to do or stop doing) saves and creates space for even better things we say “yes” to (or choose to do). We all have finite resources. Being able to say no to others and ourselves is one of the most powerful muscles in building a strong business or career and a happy life. Failing to say no, at the very least, can cause us to miss something bigger or greater. At worst and more commonly, not saying no when we can and should can lead to burnout, dilution of focus, high opportunity costs, stress, and more.

And still, few people get to have honest conversations about ways to say “no”. Many struggle with this knowingly or unknowingly – and some more than others. I’ve developed a few approaches that work for me over the years, after learning the hard way that saying yes all the time is a recipe for pain.

Cheat Sheet:

Saying no comes in many forms. Whether it’s for work, help, volunteering, investment, donations, or time, here are some high-level phrases that can be adapted to your personality.

  • No. As many others have said, “No.” is a complete sentence

  • Not now

  • I love this, but it’s not in line with my focuses right now

  • I cannot give this the time it deserves

  • Not me, but I can connect you with someone who can (this is a way to say no to the ask, but saying yes to helping)

  • I could do a piece of this but would need help/someone else to pick up the rest (another way to say no by saying yes to a part of it)

  • Not a fit for me (and share reason if you desire)

  • I’m putting my energy into a few other big things right now and need to focus on those primarily

My own experience.

In the earliest part of my career, “no” was not in my vocabulary. If any opportunity came up, I said yes – whether I was ready or not, whether it was cool or not. Go clean the bathrooms – yep. Drive someone to the airport – no problem. Work on a project outside the main job to help others with their work – absolutely. Volunteer my time for something out of work – indeed. It served me well generally. I met great people and built relationships. I had fun. I learned faster than others. I build a reputation as someone flexible, helpful, and connected.

That always-yesness wasn’t sustainable as I started to manage people and as I began to have more personal and intimate relationships to invest in. I went through a period of letting people down, overcommitting, then realizing I was busier than ever, but a bit more drained and less happy – little by little – every month. Something had to give, several things actually. I had to reflect and refine. I trimmed down some commitments through a process of prioritizing and promised myself I’d learn and be better at saying no, so I could be more fulfilled with fewer, more impactful yesses.

I realized that the real way to be sure I wasn’t letting people down was to ensure I could be all in and meet or exceed expectations on the things I was doing. I realized that saying no was sometimes the best way to protect my relationships, so I didn’t put myself in a position of letting other people down.

It’s not always easy.

Saying no is an art and a science. Whether someone is a Type-A personality, not wanting to miss an opportunity (FOMO), feeling invincible, worried about letting people down, feeling universally responsible, or going through a season with bandwidth to say yes to almost everything, saying “no” doesn’t come naturally to many.

Often we need to say no to things we actually kinda want to do – that’s the tough part. Building a strong ‘no muscle’ is not just about saying the word in response to a request from someone else. It’s also about proactively telling ourselves no when we feel compelled to add on something that may not lead to optimal outcomes.

Here are a few tips for strengthening your “no” muscle.

Values & goals are the foundation.

Pause, reflect, and write down your values. This is your ideal list of “HOW” you show up and do things and generally captures your “WHY”.

Write down your goals, both short and long term. This is your ideal list of “WHAT” you want to do and generally by “WHEN”.

Values and goals help us frame the prioritization filter we’ll use at any given time. These two lists help me with “trade-off choices”. I’ll say no to X, because I want to/have to do or have Y. Example: I’ll say no to a group mentoring zoom or podcast one night, because I need to spend more time with my kids that week. But in a different week, the opposite may be true. I may ask my husband to watch the kids (or get a sitter), so I can do extra work, a mentoring zoom, or podcast.

Using this list as a prioritization filter helps me realize that by saying no to some things, I’m saying yes to what matters most. Sometimes I want to say yes to the idea or thing, but the who it’s with or how it’s being done is not for me – that means I should wait or find a way to do it my way, so I can say yes with more pride.

All in. Every day.

This is the mantra my husband and I have for our relationship. Early on he made it clear that if things weren’t a hell yes, then they were a hell no. I can’t say we adhere to that 100%, but certainly most of the time.

This mindset makes saying no a bit easier, and when I do say yes to something or choose to jump into a new project, I take a moment to remember that the things I chose not to do allowed me to be in that moment of accomplishment.

Put it in perspective.

While saying no may feel uncomfortable, letting people down, being too overwhelmed to do great work, or stressing ourselves out is far worse. Saying no is a gift, and it’s ultimately one step to saying a big YES to things that matter most. Once you are saying no with confidence and grace, head to this earlier post on Saying Yes!

By Kat Cole