No is a Complete Sentence

Many professionals today are completely overwhelmed with work, and in their willingness to please or desire to avoid conflict, when presented with yet another work request, they ‘give in’ and resentfully add it to their already overflowing in-tray.

The root cause of this is usually under-resourced teams who can’t recruit the staff they want or need; or systemic issues in the structure and processes of how work is allocated and organised, and how competing priorities are dealt with.

So the problem is not of their making, but they can find themselves paying the price in terms of extra hours and potential burnout, and need to find better ways to manage their response.

My coaching clients often experience this; they’d like to be more assertive and stand up for themselves, but struggle to achieve that in a way that works consistently for them. 

However most of them also say things like, “I’m my own worst enemy, I can’t say no, I don’t want to be seen as uncooperative or unhelpful, I want to prove myself.” 

And once these habits of thinking and behaviour get established, they can be difficult to change.

Many of us hold back from asserting our own needs because we don’t want to be perceived as bossy, or even aggressive – we conflate the two. 

Being assertive means being respectful of the other person’s needs, and your own, in an appropriate way.

Of course there are often situations where we may need to ‘burn the midnight oil’, but this should be the exception and not the norm.

So how do you reset your own and your colleagues expectations of what is realistically feasible?

Here are four areas I think are invaluable when it comes to managing your workload and priorities in an assertive way…

Being heard 

When you get a request that you really don’t want to commit to, how can you ensure that you are heard in that situation? 

The DISC model and all its variants can be helpful here, where there are predominantly four styles of communication preference and their typical characteristics. This is not about putting people in boxes; and recognises that we have the potential to use all four, but naturally we tend to stick to one or two.  

In summary the styles are:

  • Red  – extraverted, task oriented, competitive, demanding, determined, purposeful
  • Yellow – extraverted, people oriented, sociable, dynamic, expressive
  • Green – introverted, people oriented, caring, encouraging, sharing, patient
  • Blue – introverted, task oriented, cautious, precise, deliberate, formal

We may find that requests come to us in perhaps a Red or Yellow style, and perhaps our natural preference is working in a Green style, so we don’t want to be uncooperative or raise conflict with the other person, and our typical response might be “Oh I am really snowed under and I’ll have to work late but I can try & fit it in on Friday”

A better response might be to take a few minutes when you receive the request to say you’ll be back to them in 5 minutes to give you time to think.

Focus on Why

If you have trouble saying “no” or at least “not right now”, it’s vital to have clearly agreed and prioritised goals so that you can determine if a task, or request, is more important or less important for you. 

  • Why do you need to do this, and why now? 
  • Is this something you are being measured on or working towards something you want to achieve?

That will help you to take stock and understand why it’s important to say no, because other things will suffer – whether it’s the impact on you or your team, or existing commitments to other clients or colleagues. 

These are all the facts that need to be addressed, and this factual, neutral approach is linked to the Blue style above.

Time to think

Once you’ve had time to think, and know the reasons why “no” is the right word, then you can say “no” and can lay out the facts for yourself so that you can communicate succinctly. You’ll more easily be able to lay out what work you have ongoing, and if necessary offer counter proposals or negotiate a solution that might involve doing it later or asking someone else. 

Maybe if this is an ongoing or recurring issue you can put forward actionable solutions that will improve the situation in future. Instead of just saying “no”, you can say “no I can’t do it, but I would like to help with a solution to resolve it for next time.” 

This is using some of the Red style and also the Blue to be both focused and respectfully direct. 

It’s also worth looking at time-honoured tools like the urgent / important matrix, to help you see the wood for the trees.

Full body yes

When you’re agreeing to do something that you intuitively know is not humanly possible, you owe it to yourself to pay attention to what you’re feeling inside, rather than making commitments and creating expectations that you know you can’t deliver.

“If it’s not a full body yes, it’s a no” (or at least maybe not right now, or not yet).

So hopefully some of these may give you some breathing space. 

I tend to use the metaphor of the ‘laundry basket’: in my world the laundry basket is never empty except perhaps for a fleeting moment!  So accepting that fact and that there’s only so much one person can do, is absolutely necessary. 

I highly recommend reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks for a great insight and perspective on how to best use the time we have.

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