ALC English Journal Article July 2013

Difficulty Saying “No”

QUESTION: “I’m overloaded with work, but I’m not good at saying no to additional requests or letting other people take over some of my work. What should I do?”

ANSWER: All over the world overworked people like us struggle to say “no” to more work. Maybe it’s because we want other people to like us. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t like conflict, so we say “yes” to avoid an argument. We may also fear that, by saying “no”, we’ll miss out on an opportunity that could be good for our career. Sometimes I think we just hate to admit that there are limits to what we can do.

What Should I Say “Yes” to? Before determining which requests to reject, I’ve found it’s important to know which requests to accept. Here are three criteria to help clarify what deserves your time and attention:

  • Priority – Is this one of your team’s most important and urgent projects?
  • Personal – Is this something that can only be done by you personally?
  • Passion – Is this something that you love to do, and are great at?

Think about these questions and interpret your answers using this diagram:

Diagram

#1 – If the answer to all three questions is yes, the request falls in the center of the three circles. Say yes, and do it immediately! It’s probably more important than anything else you’re currently working on, you’re the only one who can do it, and you’ll enjoy it, too!

Do it! – A request that falls into the overlap of the “Personal” and “Priority” circles is almost as compelling as “#1” area tasks, but you just won’t enjoy doing it. So what? Do it immediately anyway! It’s your job, and work isn’t always fun.

Delegate it! – If the task is a high priority, but someone else could do it, you should delegate it. Failure to delegate appropriately prevents your co-workers from learning and growing. Even worse, refusing to let other people take over some of your work traps you in your current job – forever!

“If you can’t say “no”, your “yes” means nothing!” That’s a famous saying, but I actually don’t recommend saying “no”. Instead, my advice is to use the “Yes, if…” approach. Simply say “Yes, if __________________” and then fill in the blank with your own request – something that would make it possible (even easy!) for you to agree.

Here are a few examples:

  • Priority – “Yes, if my manager agrees that this is my #1 priority, then I can stop working on my other tasks and do this now.”
  • Personal – “Yes, if I’m the only person who can do this, and you can wait until I’m finished with other higher priority projects, I can work on this next.”
  • Passion – “Yes, I’d love to do this if you can do some of my other higher priority tasks.”

Priorities shift rapidly – stay flexible. If you clearly communicate your criteria for saying yes, people will be better able to accept your response when you say no. Enjoy practicing your “Yes, if…” tool!

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