Saying ‘no’ without damaging your reputation



A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble” said Mahatma Gandhi. Following the previous post on the challenges of saying ‘no’, this entry considers how to develop the skill of saying ‘no’ in practice.

1.       You need a robust basis for saying ‘no’. Good intentions to spend more time on marketing, networking, family life, personal fitness  or whatever will rarely be sufficient. Of greater value are concrete commitments to specific and tangible activities. For one busy city lawyer this meant scheduling an evening pilates class once a week with a private instructor. The fact that her plan involved another person (the pilates instructor), a scheduled activity, and a financial outlay, all helped raise her level of commitment to her decision.

2.       Communicate your plans to others. Informing colleagues and clients of our existing commitments can influence their thinking positively, and potentially avoid the need to say ‘no’. Provided you give the message in a positive manner, putting the focus on when you will be available for them, rather than when you won’t, you can provide a strong example of personal organisation. This can also encourage in them an attitude of better preparation, for example giving them the chance to anticipate in advance ways in which they may need your involvement.

3.       When saying ‘no’, maintain a positive attitude towards the other person and find a way to demonstrate your desire to be of service. Sometimes this may mean suggesting an alternative solution. It’s helpful to think of ‘no’ in terms of ‘not now’ rather than ‘never’! With regard to maintaining a positive attitude …

4.       Do not direct your anger at the person asking you. If as Ghandi suggests you are in the habit of saying ‘yes’ to please others or to avoid trouble, you will have possibly accumulated feelings of being taken advantage of, along with suppressed anger. In truth you are responsible for your choices, and if the other person gets what they want by asking you, good for them! A student at the school I taught at in Kenya once asked me out of the blue to give him my camera. Catching myself feeling angry at his ‘impertinence’, I quickly adjusted my perspective as I realised that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d have been a fool not to try!

5.       Don’t assume that what they ask for is what they really need. The two are often very different. For example your client asks you to complete the draft contract by Thursday, yet in practice only needs information relating to costs. It’s often worth finding out what specifically is important to the client about the time-scale of their request.


It may seem like a small thing to say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’. Over time however, it generates a life of frustration and regrets. An Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded the most often-discussed regrets. First on her list, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Next on the list, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” (Read the Top 5 Regrets here).



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