The “Bad” Little Word You Need To Say More


There, I said it! It feels good to practice; maybe you should give it a try. Repeat after me:

“No, I cannot attend this event.”

“No, I cannot serve as room mom for little Johnny’s class.”

“No, I cannot take on a new project.”

“No, I cannot join [insert laudable professional or civic organization here].”

No. No. No!

I’m making light of it here, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that saying “no” is hard. It can be really really hard. It feels bad, or at the very least uncomfortable. In fact, research shows that people struggle with saying “no,” even when they absolutely, objectively should say it.

In one study last year at the University of Waterloo, college students approached strangers and asked them to vandalize a library book by writing the word “pickle” across one of the pages. Would you do it? It’s a silly request, right? Objectively, it’s wrong to deface library books. Not illegal maybe, but wrong. You don’t know the person asking, you don’t have history with them and you don’t have to worry about preserving your relationship. You should say no. And many people did. But a full 50% said yes!

Why did they do it?

Because saying “no” is hard!

Professionally, many of us are simply wired to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way. I’m competitive by nature, and I really love a challenge. Plus, I know a lot of professional women who feel like they need to be working and networking and serving extra hard all the time in order to get anywhere. On a personal level, we worry about hurting people’s feelings, threatening relationships, or disappointing people.

And “no” almost always does disappoint. It is a rejection of something, flat out. Ouch.

Nevertheless, you should probably be saying it more.

The most productive, creative, successful people in the world are saying no all the time. People like Warren Buffett, Peter Drucker, Steve Jobs, even the novelist Charles Dickens extoll the virtues of limiting their commitments.

These people are not mean or selfish. They simply understand that time and energy are finite resources. If you say yes to too many things, you cripple your ability to give anything your best effort. In order to steward the resources God has given you, you must say “no” a lot.

Like most of you, no can be hard for me, but I’ve gotten much better at it over time. It helps me to keep my “no’s” in perspective. Sometimes it’s no, not ever, flat out, period. When I was working at ProLogis—doing what, at that time, I considered to be my “dream job”—and the CEO asked me to move my family to Denver, I knew that saying “no” would mean it was time to find a new job. I was closing a door in order to protect my family priorities.

Sometimes, though, no simply means, “not now, but maybe later.” A few years ago I was approached by a friend at the Bush Institute and asked to be part of their Women’s Initiative Fellowship, an international mentoring program for women. It sounded like an incredible opportunity, and mentoring is right in line with my passions and my talents. But when I looked at what I had on my plate, it was clear to me that I couldn’t handle a commitment like this one. I said no. But I also said, “please ask me again in a few years.” They did. And this year I’m serving as an enthusiastic mentor to a bright Tunisian woman.


To use it effectively, you need to mentally reframe what “no” means for you: it is so much more than a rejection! Every time you turn away an opportunity or a new commitment, you are protecting or nurturing something else. God has given me (and you!) unique gifts, and He has called us to excellence. The simple truth is that doing anything well requires time, and time is a limited resource.

Okay, all of this “no means yes!” positivity sounds great from a distance. What actually happens when you get that call? You know the one I’m talking about.

The phone rings, and it’s your friend Sally, who starts almost immediately into her pitch. She is launching a new project to aid disadvantaged women in the community. She wants you to serve on her board. You like Sally. You like what she is doing. Moreover you have been Sally, calling friends and asking them to give their time to something. Maybe you have even called Sally. Maybe (gulp) she said yes the last time you asked her for something. On the phone, Sally is passionate and enthusiastic and “won’t take no for an answer.” Your heart beats a little faster, your thoughts race as you consider your current slate of commitments. You grip the phone tight and blink slowly. Deep breaths.

Here’s what you need to do:

Step back. Buy yourself some thinking and praying time. When it comes to big commitments or decisions especially, I try to never answer on the spot. You can say simply, “I need to take some time to think this over. Can I let you know tomorrow?” If the person presses you for an immediate answer, it’s most likely because they know that the odds are in their favor in the heat of the moment. Don’t be bullied. Stand up for yourself if you have to, and make it clear that you are careful about your commitments. You can do it in a very nice way: “This sounds important, it deserves the best efforts of your Board members, and I need some time to think through whether or not I’m able to give it my best efforts.”

Run the strengths and priorities test. In order to make good decisions about your commitments, you need to have a clear idea of what your priorities and strengths are. For me, big picture priorities are faith first, then family, then career. When new opportunities come up, I run through a mental test:

  1. How does this fit with the gifts God gave me?
  2. How does this help or hurt my faith, family, career?
  3. How much time will it realistically take away from something else?
  4. Is there something I’m doing now that I should give up in order to pursue this?

Be firm, and kind, and firm. If you’re answer is no, say so plainly. There is certainly room for kindness; you’re rejecting the thing here, not the person who wants you to do it. You can invite Sally to keep you updated on her progress, offer to pray for her efforts or offer a monetary donation to her cause if it feels right. But don’t get so wrapped up in being nice that you start sending mixed messages. Don’t apologize for your decision unless you really have something to apologize for (you probably don’t). Don’t invite them to ask you again another time unless you really do want them to (because they will). Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself if necessary (sometimes, it is).

Even with lots of practice, saying no is not easy, but it’s a huge part of leading a balanced life and accomplishing your goals. You can do it!

Now, while I have you here, there’s this great opportunity I’ve been wanting to talk to you about…

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Should you be saying “no” more? What your best tip for avoiding over-commitment?