Years ago, I had just returned to work six months after having my first child.  I had my hands full trying to figure out how to combine my job as an anesthesiologist with the demands of motherhood.  I was sleep-deprived and overloaded.  

The Chair of my department called me one day and asked me to present at the annual anesthesia conference that was sponsored by my university.  I immediately knew that there was no way that I had the bandwidth needed to prepare and present a talk.  But how could I say ‘No”?

I had all kinds of thoughts about it.  They sounded something like this:

  • When the Chair asks me to do something, I have to say “yes”.
  • If I don’t say “yes”, he’ll think I’m lazy.
  • It’s an honour to be asked, I should do it.
  • Why is he asking me—doesn’t he know I have an infant at home and can barely handle what’s already on my plate?
  • I don’t have a choice.
  • I have to be a team player.
  • He won’t like me if I say “no”.

Can you relate?  Ever find yourself agreeing to take on a task that you really didn’t want to do?  And then feeling resentful?

Often, in order to do these things, we put our own needs on hold.  Maybe we stay up too late several days in a row to meet a deadline.  Or we skip exercising that day to make time.  Or maybe we put aside projects that are more aligned with our own goals and interests in order to get it done.

But here’s what I want you to understand:  It’s OK to say “no”.  If no one has ever given you permission to say “no” whenever that feels right to you, let me be the first.

We’ve all heard the saying “No is a complete sentence.”  I’d like to suggest that you take it one step further, and make it a policy to usually say “no” when you are asked to take on a new task.  (Shout out to my friend and fellow physician coach Dr. Ann Cooley who taught me this concept.)  

Now, it doesn’t have to be “No” in a negative way.  Here are some scripts that you can practice and use:

  • Thank you for asking me.  I like to make sure that I can give a new project appropriate time and attention. I’m afraid my schedule is too full at the present time to take on something else.
  • This project would be a bit of a departure from my current areas of focus and interest.  Therefore, I will have to say “no” at this time.  Thank you for thinking of me.

Saying “no” first gives you the space to decide if a new project or task really is something that meets your goals and excites you.  You can always tell them that you’ve had a chance to think about it, and it turns out that you are interested.  

Consider being strategic about the tasks you do decide to take on.  Will they grow your skill set in some way?  Get you closer to a goal or credential?  Advance your career?  Grow your network?  Give you the opportunity to work with people you want to learn from?

Coming from a place of “no” is a spiritual practice. It comes from having love for yourself, and ultimately respecting others enough to give them your truth.  And if they don’t like it, that is none of your business.

Where in your life do you need to say “no” more?

Share in the comments below your experience of saying “yes” when you really wanted to say “no”, or times when you had the courage to say “no”.

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