Owning Your No: How to Say Yes and Say No with Confidence
Steve Jobs famously said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
According to Jobs, focus is all about finding and owning your no. Getting clear, upfront, about what you will and will not do. But many of us struggle to determine what we need to say no to in the first place, nevermind finding the best way to deliver the news to those our choices impact.
Today, many working professionals - especially women - feel uneasy about delivering a clear, direct, unapologetic no. My clients will regularly say "I can't say no" or "I'm terrible at saying no" - self-fulfilling messaging that makes it harder to get the dreaded phrase out of their mouths in the moment.
But as my friends who are parents of toddlers will tell me, at one point in our lives, we fell in love with the word no. The power of it, the definitive sound of it as it came out of our tiny mouths, arms crossed in defiance; the way it would make adults squirm and all eyes turn our way.
When did we lose this unbridled adoration of our power word? Why is it so hard for so many adults today to access a clear, definitive no? And how do we get good at identifying what needs to be nixed and delivering the bad news proactively?
Author adrienne maree brown in her book Pleasure Activism claims that "many of us are taught anti-consent practices as children, to hug and kiss whatever adult comes around asking for affection, that it's rude if we don't make the demanded contact. This culture of access based on power grows with us."
From an early age, we learn that saying yes comes with rewards. Those with power - adults, bosses, systems - must be honored before our own inner wisdom and intuition. And that there are consequences for saying no.
Girls especially are socialized to learn that they can best assert control over their environment by being likable:"Learning very early that everybody gets to have an opinion about them, girls learn to abide by this external social authority, which decrees not only what is permissible behavior for them, but what is not," says Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in Women Don't Ask.
This early learning manifests in the professional environment as women more than men resist: saying no, competing overtly, and taking risks asking for what they want - all out of fear of exposing themselves to the possible social consequences that can in turn harm the relationship.
The good news is self-awareness can help to cut through the fear of saying no, allowing for a neutral assessment that becomes the foundation of action.
Below, I've outlined the steps and learnings I find most useful in being able to identify your own powerful no and successfully share it:
Step 1: Find your clear yes
Tapping into your clear sense of yes and no starts with body awareness. Locking in a strong body sensation as it is a more reliable instrument than the mind.
Think back to a time in your life you felt a clear yes: It may have been when you accepted a job, or a proposal, or a call to adventure. How did it feel in your body? How did it taste, feel, sound, smell? It may have felt like clear mountain air, or the ringing of a bell, or a deep sense of knowing in your gut. Get curious about your own specific tell: This is your north star.
Clear yeses typically feel gentle, bringing with them a sensation of relief, or like simple truths. My client who left her full time job to start her own business describes her clear yes as "I just couldn't NOT do it." Her clear yes felt neutral, obvious and lacking all drama. If you need more help identifying your clear yes, complete the Compass Worksheet here.
Step 2: Nos exist on a spectrum
Now imagine a time that you said yes but you shouldn't have. The feeling of doing something that you didn't want to, or that felt out of alignment for you. In your body, did you experience a subtle feeling of disgust, fatigue, revulsion, a sick stomach, a clouded head, or lots of drama?
Lock in this feeling so you know what the opposite of your clear yes feels like. As you get more skilled at toggling between these two feelings, you will be able to feel them at subtler and subtler levels, in the moment, with every decision you come across. The body never lies.
Step 3: What to do if it's not a yes, and it's not a no...
If the decision is not a clear yes, but it doesn't feel like a clear no, the answer is either collect more data or your mind is trying to talk you into doing something your heart doesn't want to do.
If it is the former and more data is needed, run a small experiment to test your decision before you make it and check in with your body's response. Can you trust your body to lead you to the right decision?
If it is the later and your head is trying to convince you of a yes, you will experience the mind working overtime: You'll feel a strong need for justifications, excuses, validation, and opinions. Maybe the people pleasing saboteur shows up with lots of fear around what other people will think. My client recently spent days asking everyone in her life for advice about a project that in her heart she knew she had to turn down. When she finally did, the simplicity of that no felt like freedom, despite the hours she had wasted making pro and con lists.
Step 4: Saying no makes room for a sacred yes
As Robert Holden said, "I first started thinking about Sacred Yeses about 15 years ago. Back then, I had made a conscious decision to follow my joy. Sacred yeses help me to prioritize my life. They help me to be focused and stay true to myself." Once you have gotten clarity about your no, you can start the process of mapping what you want to say no to and what you want to say yes to. You can follow the plate exercise to do this every week, or dive into other prioritization exercises that help you get strategic and proactive ahead of time about your nos.
Step 5: The power of no: a leadership case
Claiming what you will not do, or identifying where your boundary is actually inspires greater trust with others. You become a person of high integrity. You are clear with your speech and can own what you need. It also makes you more in demand and more desirable, and inspires respect.
Saying no to something imperfect can feel vulnerable - what if nothing better comes along? - but it requires you call on your inner resources of self-determination, trust, vision, and intrinsic value. Every time I turn down work that isn't quite right, fighting past an old scarcity mindset, I inevitably make space for bigger, better clear YES projects that find me ready and willing.
Step 6: Delivering an effective no
Did you know that no is a complete sentence? As a recovering people pleaser, I spent a good portion of my life saying no accompanied by a thousand qualifiers, always attempting to soften the blow: "I wish I could...I am so sorry...I would love to but...", offering up excuses and explanations anytime I had to let someone down. These words serve to confuse and dilute our integrity and message.
As Tara Moore says in her book Playing Big, women often turn to hedges, apologies, qualifying phrases and undermining structures because they are avoiding conflict, visibility, and claiming power. In avoiding saying the no directly and clearly, we end up conveying tentativeness, self-doubt or mixed messages. When you deliver your next no, practice owning your message. Keep it short. Drop the qualifiers and excuses.
Step 7: When no becomes a yes (or vice versa)
You are allowed to change your mind. When you own your no, you can practice coming forward to also own a shift, a new boundary or a change of heart. When you practice with self trust and commitment, you hold yourself accountable to the choice you are making in this moment. As Henry and Karen Kimsey-House write in Co-Active Coaching, the words yes and no "are two of the simplest words in any language... but they can be two of the most difficult words to say out loud for the whole world to hear. Saying no to a simple action is much more than taking that one thing off the list. It often means saying no to old beliefs or old expectations, no to self-betrayal, no to habitual ways of reacting to the demands of others." As always, treat yourself with gentleness in this process. Find your truth in the here in now, as best you can, and have fun working with these tools, giving yourself a good margin of error and space and low-stakes scenarios to practice with.
As you watch yourself step into your power with no, encourage others in your life to get clear about their yeses and nos and act in alignment with that truth. Go easy when they get it wrong. Call them forth when their language betrays that they are mixed. Act with bravery in your own life of reclaiming this simple word and you will reap the results.