Firm boundaries create a foundation of trust.  It requires mastering the art of saying no.  Saying no means you care more about your happiness than trying to please others, including bosses, partners or subordinates.  It means you’re willing to make difficult choices that might look selfish in the short term while in the long term benefits everyone involved.  It means you’re willing to stand up for what you believe in.

The art of saying no means you’ve mastered personal integrity.

Saying yes is easy. Saying no, not so much.  Most employers, like most people, want to be seen as friendly and, as a result, always tend to say yes.  Yes, to more customers.  Yes, to more features in the system.  Yes, to the ever-increasing demands of your workforce.

These employers hope that saying yes will have a return on investment.  They hope customers will be loyal when they say yes, or employees will be more engaged and motivated at work, or the product will be better and thus more valuable.  Usually, it doesn’t work that way.

The impact of always saying yes

More often than not, always saying yes creates demanding customers who want even more next time at an even lower price.  It creates an entitled workforce with increasing demands rather than an empowered one.  While you hope your employees will get happier, their unhappiness increases.

Always saying yes doesn’t usually result in a happier customer base or workforce.  On the contrary, it creates more pressure to deliver, more waste in new features, and ultimately, it dilutes the value of your product or service.

The most successful companies are focused.  Apple won the majority market share in the computer industry by saying no.  Amazon started with only selling books, saying no to everything else.  It is the art of saying no that allowed these companies to stand out and win over the hearts and minds of the consumers.

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.

– Warren Buffett

Why is it hard to say no?

Saying no is one of the most empowering experiences.   It is also by far one of the hardest things to learn.  But why is it so hard to say no?

There are a thousand reasons why people don’t want to say no. However, the top three from my personal experience are:

1. The fear of losing out

One of the most common reasons people say yes even though they want to say no, is founded on a fear of losing out.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, FOMO is defined as:

: fear of missing out 

: fear of not being included in something (such as an interesting or enjoyable activity) that others are experiencing

We don’t want to choose, because what if our choice turns out to be wrong?  What if we’re the only ones who can’t join the conversation about something everyone else did?  What if…

2. The fear of not knowing

What if we regret saying no later on?  What if the event you declined turned out to make the headlines due to its popularity?  What if you meet the love of your life if you just went to that one extra thing?  What if…. 

At least by saying yes, we will know whether we made the right choice or not, even if we hate it. Instead, go and be sure than not go and wonder.

However, our deep desire to be in control and shape a predictable world is like the fear of losing out, also rooted in fear.  This time, the fear that we don’t know what the outcome will be.

3. fear of rejection

The third and most deep-seated fear that causes us to say yes is our fear of rejection.  What if they dislike me if I say no?  What if they get angry?  What if they behave in a passive-aggressive way because I said no?

We are so afraid of being rejected that we would rather deal with the negative consequences of saying yes than risk saying no.

All these fears are, of course, valid. Naturally, we would want to avoid it.  But avoiding these fears doesn’t yield the results you were hoping for. While preventing a fire might keep you from burning, dodging a clear and confident no is not going to keep you safe from the consequence of saying no.  You won’t be more liked and respected. Employees might dislike you even more.  Customers won’t be more loyal.  They might become more demanding and ask for even more until you learn the art of saying no.

Saying no is like being between a rock and a hard place.  Neither is easy.

The essential art of saying no

I learned how to say no early on in my career and, to my surprise, realized how empowering it could be if used with integrity.

In my first role, I was responsible for certifying products as adhering to national and international standards.  It was up to me whether the public would use a product. Saying no to inferior products was easy as there were clearly outlined regulations and standards.

However, in my next role, I realized that yes and no aren’t always as clear cut as in my first job.  It requires judgement rather than rules.  Discernment requires integrity and strong values rather than a checklist.

When is enough enough?

After an intense few months of late nights to avoid penalties as a result of not meeting deadlines, everyone was stressed and tired.  As the deadline approached, the customer became more demanding, like a spoiled child who wants candy before dinner.

He kept making increasingly unrealistic requests, knowing very well he was in a power position.  He was used to people always saying yes to his demands.

But when you’re tired and overworked and the unrealistic demands, it becomes much easier to say no.  You can only push people until a certain point.  When the customer again came with a ludicrous request after another night without any sleep, I finally pushed back and very directly said no.

He didn’t know how to respond.  It was the first time someone had said no to him. Everyone was convinced I would be fired for speaking up to our main account.  Surprisingly, however, the opposite happened.

The demanding customer became my biggest supporter, and I received a big bonus for my hard work and dedication.  After the initial anger subsided, he realized the validity of my reasoning.  I wasn’t being stubborn or difficult, but realistic and focused on the most crucial goal to help him succeed.

After a few more weeks of sleepless nights, we managed to go live on the planned date, and everything worked out.  Had I said yes, who knows how it would turn out.  Saying no was the right thing to do, and everyone knew it was looking back.

How saying no benefits both sides

Since this early lesson in saying no, I’ve learned its importance as a foundation to build trust and respect. I learned that I can manage expectations better by saying no, which always results in higher trust.  I learned that saying no builds respect, which creates more efficient teams that support each other.  I also learned that saying no allows someone else to say yes.

I learned that saying no to mediocre means saying yes to exceptional.

Essentials of saying no with integrity

There are many ways of saying no; the most common is a firm no used by authorities to enforce power.  There are, however, kinder, more inclusive ways of saying no, which yields much better results.

Saying no to enforce power is a selfish, exclusive approach.  Saying no with integrity considers everyone involved, rather like a loving parent keeping their child safe from harm.

1. Be clear on your values

Your values define who you are.  The only way to say no with integrity is to be clear on your values and those impacted by your decision.

When you say no to enforce power, people might resent you or break the rules when you’re not there to enforce it.  When, however, you say yes based on shared values, people will respect you and follow the rules even when you’re not there to enforce them.

The first step in the art of saying no is to be clear on your values and the shared values of those impacted.

2. Notice when a boundary is crossed

The second step might seem obvious but by far the most common issue when saying no.  More often than not, it is hard to notice when a boundary is being crossed.  It happens so gradually that it often goes unnoticed, and the longer it goes, the harder it comes to enforce the boundary.

Listen to your body.  Your emotions are essential to notice when someone oversteps our invisible boundaries.  You might not consciously know why something upsets you, or you might think it is too small to address, but when you don’t, the minor issue will become larger and larger.

By far, the best strategy I’ve found is to address the issues when they’re small and insignificant so that they don’t become big.

3. Say no and keep a connection

The biggest fear keeping us from saying no is a fear of rejection.  But what if you could say no and maintain a trusting relationship?

When you say no with integrity, you enforce your boundaries, strengthening a relationship rather than ruining it. When you care about the relationship, a no is not a switch that you can turn.  It is a slider that can move to various positions.

The key to saying no with integrity is to be clear on your boundaries and your goals, as well as the boundaries and objectives of the others involved.  When you can find a mutual goal finding alternatives that benefit both becomes possible.

The art of boundaries

Next time before you say no, or someone says no when you want a yes, consider finding a mutual goal based on shared values and needs.  Come up with alternatives and adapt your solutions or plans to make space for including others’ needs.

Not only will you gain respect and trust, but you will also strengthen your relationships.

What are you saying yes to that you don’t want to say yes to?

With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.