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Anatomy of a "no"

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Welcome back! As promised, I’m wrapping up my two-post series on boundaries with a step-by-step guide on how to set them—or more specifically, how to say no. If you missed the last post, please check it out to get up to speed on why setting boundaries is so important.

I know we’re all busy—thus, the need to say no!—so let’s dive right in.

The next time you’re presented with a request, how about giving the following steps a try?

Step 1

Pause. (Yes, we've seen this before. Honestly, if this is the only step you manage to take, still consider it a win.)

Step 2

Ask yourself this all-important question: Do I WANT to do it? Then see which of the following categories your response falls into.

(a) You’re bursting with excitement at the prospect. [Fantastic! Say yes and add it to your calendar. No need to read on.]

(b) Every part of your body is clenched up so tight that you feel like one of those rubberband balls. Or maybe you’re resisting the urge to shout, “Are you freaking kidding me?!”

(c) You’re not sure how you feel. [Given how over-extended we all are, I’m tempted to just lump this into the “no” category. But if you want to explore this a bit more, try taking a few moments to tap into your built-in body compass. Close your eyes and quiet your mind. Then picture yourself doing what’s been asked. How does it feel? For more guidance on how to use your body’s wisdom when making decisions, check out this post by Martha Beck.]

Step 3

Okay, you’re still reading, so I’m assuming that your response fell into category (b) or (c), which means that you’ll likely need to find a way to say no. I say “likely” and not “definitely” because there are those rare occasions when, for whatever reason, we truly cannot say no despite our complete aversion to doing what’s been requested. I want to emphasize that this is far less common than we think. I’m not talking about things like, “My best friend will never forgive me if I say no!” The situations I have in mind are more like, “My doctor told me that I will be admitted to the hospital on Friday if I don’t do this.”

If you’re feeling afraid or guilty or just plain bad, you aren’t alone. Saying no can make us feel very uncomfortable. Please don’t let that deter you. I strongly encourage you to carefully consider the actual costs and benefits of agreeing to do something you don’t wish to do. And at a minimum, keep reading… Maybe one of the approaches below will jump out at you and the no will become doable despite your initial hesitation.

If you’ve clearly concluded that you must say yes despite your lack of interest, then honor your decision and smooth the road as best you can. That usually means dropping any resistance to the task and focusing on the good that will come from it. You might ask yourself, “How can this be easy?” or “What can I learn from this?”

Step 4

And finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for… tricks, tips, and techniques for saying no. I’ve shared these in no particular order. Some relate to the act of saying no, while others help us build the boundary-setting habit. As always, try a few on for size, keep what fits, and leave the rest behind.

  • Make “no” your default response. Start there, and unless you can easily convince yourself that it’s worth saying yes, the “no” stands. You may want to put a Post-It note with the word “no” on your computer or planner as a reminder. Or for additional reinforcement, fill in every time slot in your calendar with “no.” In order to add anything to your calendar, you’ll need to replace it with an intentional yes.

  • Have your reply ready. It’s much harder to say no if you’re struggling to formulate a response. Come up with a couple of short replies that feel okay to you. “Thanks for thinking of me! I’m afraid I’m not available” or “As much as I’d love to see you, I’ve been running ragged and I’m really trying to establish boundaries so I can stay healthy and productive.” Then use them when opportunities to say no arise. And resist the urge to over-explain.

  • Tally the true costs of a “yes.” Saying yes to something means saying no to every other thing we could have done with that time. This frequently means allocating less time for the things that are most important to us like our research, our families, and our health (hopefully not in that order!). Take some time to consciously consider what this "yes" means saying no to, or for a more positive spin, focus on what you’d gain by saying no to the current request.

  • Establish a pro-boundary mantra. Examples include, “My chances of achieving my goals do not hinge on saying yes to this” and my personal favorite, “All baby opportunities are cute. Imagine this opportunity as a teenager.” See this Times Higher Education article for more.

  • Seek support. Many people are struggling to set boundaries… Why not help each other by offering encouragement and providing accountability? You might even create a “no” support group to share strategies and celebrate successes.

  • Follow a “no” with a “yes.” You want to be helpful, but the mere thought of saying yes to the request has you searching your cabinets for a bag of chocolate chips (aka desperation sweets). Is there something else you’d feel good about doing? If so, offer it, with the added bonus of knowing that proactive helping is less tiring than reactive helping.

  • Practice. It takes time and repeated experience to build a boundary-setting habit, especially for those of us who’ve spent a lifetime saying yes without thinking. The more you say no, the easier it gets. Don’t forget to savor each success. You might even make a note in your calendar at the time you would have been at that meeting (had you said yes) so you can bask in the glow of being anywhere but there. :)

Finally, I want to acknowledge that saying no isn’t easy. And if you’re a tenure-track assistant professor, you may understandably worry about how saying no could impact your colleagues’ opinions of you and, therefore, your tenure prospects. These concerns aren’t to be dismissed. At the same time, I can say three things with confidence.

  1. Saying yes to everything we’re asked to do guarantees that we will not accomplish the things that are important to us, including the things that will actually be rewarded professionally.

  2. No matter how hard we try and how many times we say yes, we can’t make other people think highly of us (though I personally seem to be willing to die trying).

  3. In the end, the tenure decision is out of our hands. In my experience, the best thing we can do is live in such a way that we can look back and feel good about the choices we made, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

I think that’s enough for today. I wish you all the best on your quest for less. Please kNOw that I’m right there with you.

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