The foolproof approach to saying no

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Welcome back to Happy Academic 2018!

Already we’re into the pointy end of February. Have you stuck with any of your New Years’ resolutions? I’ve heard from several people who shared some version of my single resolution this year: Do less. There are myriad reasons that doing less/creating white space/taking down time are very good things to do (there are whole books written on it, like this). But many of us don’t do these things and I suspect one of the key reasons is because we’re NOT VERY GOOD AT SAYING NO.

There are lots of reasons you might struggle with saying no when asked to take on a new task, and as a first step in addressing no-aversity it can help to understand what they are.

Is your no-aversity due to:

  • FOMO (fear of missing out) – e.g. you find yourself wondering if you’re turning down a great career-defining opportunity, that may never arise again
  • You don’t want to disappoint, anger or let the asker down – particularly if it’s someone you like and respect
  • You don’t want to appear impolite, unhelpful or ungrateful
  • You want people to like you
  • You don’t think anyone else can do the job as well
  • You don’t really know where you are headed or what’s most important so you say yes to lots of things to ‘keep your options open’ (if this is you, this post might help)
  • Every new opportunity just sounds so much more interesting than what you’re doing right now (if this is you, try this 4-point opportunity screening test)

Understanding these drivers can help you identify what might be repeated but unhelpful beliefs, so you can counter these with more productive thinking patterns.

The reality is that the to-do lists of academic life are potentially infinite – we can’t do it all and sometimes we need to turn offers down. But why do these two letters so often seem to stick in our throat and how do we deal with that?

(Disclaimer: Of course there are some requests we can’t say no to. For instance, unless it’s clearly an optional offer, it usually isn’t wise to tell your supervisor or manager that you’re really not interested in doing what they’re requesting thank you very much. In those cases, if you’re feeling stretched, a discussion about negotiating existing priorities to fit in new tasks can be fruitful. But inevitably in academic life, you will be faced with more tasks/options than you can feasibly deal with at one point in time and many of these will be more discretionary.)

 It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.                                                                               ~Steve Jobs

How to say an effective no

It can help to remember that continually saying yes when you need to say no leads to burnout. That is not the path to a happy academic. Saying no does not mean you are a bad person; it means you are setting boundaries and looking after yourself.

Among the best advice I’ve received from a wonderful coach was to consider that rather than saying no, you are really saying say yes (then no, then yes).

The first yes is that in turning down this particular offer, you are in fact making an active decision to say yes to something else (or lots of something elses). You may be saying yes to more time to focus on existing or more important priorities in greater depth; or to time with your family and friends, or to sleep/exercise/down-time, or to your health and wellbeing.

The ‘no’ part is where you politely turn down the request. One approach that may help, particularly if you fall into some of the people-pleaser no-aversity categories listed above, is to consider that you are saying no to the request, not the person. Don’t over-explain; but if appropriate, briefly but politely stating that you’re pleased to be asked but you can’t take project X on at this time because of Y (other pressing commitments for example) will appease most askers.

Finally, you may finish with another yes – this could be a referral to someone else who may be in a better position to assist; or an offer to help in another way that is feasible (‘I’m flattered to be asked but unfortunately I’m overcommitted and not able to contribute to this project this time. You could try asking A who is keen for this kind of experience; I’d be happy to send on a few resources in this area I’ve found useful and/or assist with future projects once I’ve completed B.’

For some alternative less conventional approaches (and a laugh), with thanks to Jonathan O’Donnell for the link, see Justine Musk’s 25 badass ways to say no (explicit language warning!)

Act now

  • Exercise your no-muscles by practising saying no (or rather, yes-no-yes) as often as you can. Start by recognising requests – even small requests – you find yourself automatically agreeing to, even if your heart’s not in it. Is this instead an opportunity to instead practice a brief polite thanks but no?
  • Do you have a foolproof approach to saying no? I’d love to hear what works for you, in comments below or on Twitter.




One thought on “The foolproof approach to saying no

  1. Pingback: Kylie Ball on supporting early career researchers, virtual mentorship and wellbeing - SciencePods

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