“NO” is such a simple and elegant word, but under-used and under-valued. But this one little word can establish you as a leader destined for the C-Suite, while developing work-life balance and harmony. The failure to effectively use this word will relegate you into the humdrum of the same job, working long hours and even taking work home. Isn’t it time to learn to say “no” gracefully, effectively and often?

How many times have you sacrificed yourself to the word “yes?”

When was the last time (if ever) you told someone “no” when they asked you to do something at work?

Remember that old saying, “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person in the office?” Whoever came up with that should be shot! But that’s exactly what happens if you let it happen.

I was that person once. I used to work in an office as the lead legal secretary, lead paralegal and office administrator. My job included handling 400 actives cases while also farming out other cases to junior associates. I worked 12 hour days and took work home. Why was I so overworked? Aside from having a big load, I never said “no” to anyone in the office. It kinda made me feel important and indispensable (which is why you do it, too.)  On any given day, I would be so focused on work, sometimes I’d forget to pick up my son (age 3) from preschool. Despite that making me feel crummy, I still didn’t say “no.” I was a master at saying, “yes.” The first time I said “no,” there was backlash. The person asking couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it! Obviously I didn’t say “no” with conviction and it showed. So what did I do? I quickly said, “yes.”

It took awhile to learn to say “no.” It was like exercising a new muscle. The more I did it, the easier it became. But, it had to be done. I’m glad I learned to say “no.” It made a difference in achieving work-life balance and harmony and being taken seriously in my work environment and pretty much everywhere else. Today my stress levels are low or nonexistent.

The Road to Great Work-Life Balance and Harmony is Littered With “NO” Stones

Seriously, though, how many times? Add up all those hours that you spent doing someone else’s work because you didn’t say “no” and ask yourself this: If you had those hours, what would you do with them? Enjoy a hot bath? Travel? Spend time with your kids/family? Spend time with your significant other? Start a new hobby? Learn a new instrument? Engage in a new (or old) sport? Take a hike? Climb a mountain? Go biking? Go fishing? The list is unlimited. Before you read on, take out a pen and write down 5-10 things you’d do if you got back all that time.

My next question is this: how long are you going to keep saying “yes” and give up more hours and all those things you just listed?

Learning to say “no” gracefully is an art. But it begins with just saying “no.” Instead of worrying about what the person asking will think, imagine what you will do with the hours you just saved. That should motivate you to start, and keep, saying “no.”

The Road to the C-Suite is Paved with “NO” Stones

Now for the kicker. How does saying “no” get you elevated to the C-Suite? First, a disclaimer: if you aren’t otherwise qualified, saying “no” won’t get you into the C-Suite. But I’m assuming you have the qualifications or are in the process of getting them. Learning to say “no” will get you there faster.

Imagine a typical office scenario. There’s you and there’s your co-worker, doing similar jobs. You are the Yes Master. Your co-worker is a No Master. When the No Master asks you to do some of his/her work, what do you say? “Yes,” of course! And then what results? The No Master is off hobnobbing with the executive team, hitting the golf course, having lunch or drinks after work. Meanwhile, you are slaving away, getting the work done. Now, already, who has the better life? You or the No Master? As the Yes Master, undoubtedly, you are also becoming the Job Master. So what happens when a promotion comes around? Who gets it? More likely the No Master and here’s why.

A promotion requires training the person being promoted. If the person being promoted has to be replaced, that’s additional training for the new person. But you, the Yes Master, have proven to the company that you are indispensable. You are amazing at your job. You’re definitely the best at it. You’ve done the job of two people. You would be difficult to replace and imagine the training required to get someone up to speed to do your job! Why would they promote you when you are clearly the best at your job? Instead, the No Master who has proven to know how to delegate, a leadership quality, will be promoted. I use this example because I have heard it time and time again: “I can believe [the other person] got the promotion. I’m the best at this job!” Indeed, you are the best at the job and that’s why you didn’t get the promotion. Yea, it stinks, but that’s some reality to chew on.

The “art” of saying “no” needs to be in your repertoire of talents. Knowing when and how to say “no” will prevent others from using you as a step ladder for their advancement. Learning to say “no” equals the playing field for you. Don’t let the inability to say “no” become a hurdle for you. [Caution: in a collaborative team effort, modification must be made but you still need to learn to say “no” gracefully.]

FIVE TIPS on ways to becoming more artful at saying “no”

TIP ONE: SUCCESS IS NOT BUILT ON BUSY-NESS. True success allows for harmony with all of life: work, yourself, family and friends. But somewhere along the history of mankind, someone decided that being busy was more important than anything else. Now we have a society that demands, on the one hand, that everyone be busy, but also, on the other hand, that everyone spend time meditating. Ironic, isn’t it? Remember that having some free time on your hands allows you to care for yourself mentally, emotionally and physically, which in turn makes you more productive (not to mention more pleasant). Giving up all your free time cheats everyone, including those you work with. You know some of the Busy Masters – they are usually the most stressed people you work with.  Keep imagining what you’d do with this extra time you’ve harvested because you said “no” to stay motivated to keep saying, “no!”

TIP TWO: JUST SAY “I CAN’T RIGHT NOW.” That’s it. It’s so simple. Say the words verbatim. You don’t need to explain or apologize. In fact, not explaining keeps you out of the discussion when the person asking wants to defeat your reason (another time suck). And not apologizing keeps you standing in your power. You do not owe someone an apology when you decline to do a favor that you don’t want to do.

TIP THREE: EMPLOY PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKES. I’m a big believer in pre-emptive strikes. Employing pre-emptive strikes in life and in the work place (as opposed to a combat zone) requires a high level of awareness about yourself and those you work with (some would call this high emotional intelligence). A pre-emptive strike avoids saying the word “no,” by dealing with the potential ask before they ask. For example, at the beginning of a meeting, announce that you don’t have time to take on something new this week. Done. No excuses. No apology. You established your boundary. Now someone will have to affirmatively take an unreasonable step to even ask you. And of course, if they do, you still have the option to simply say, “I can’t right now” [Tip 2.]

TIP FOUR: USE THE PARRY. In fencing, a parry is a maneuver designed to deflect or block an incoming attack. Try one of these two maneuvers. The first parry is responding with, “let me get back to you on that.” This buys you time to actually think about the commitment when you aren’t positively certain whether or not you want to take on the project or actually have time and energy for the project. The second parry is to indicate that you don’t have time but the project sounds interesting and ask them to approach you later about it when you might have more time to consider it. These parries deflect the ask at the moment, but does not end the engagement. You are able to be honest, but remain interested. These parries are some of the best ways to manage what you take on and make sure you don’t over-fill your time and become a Busy Master.

TIP FIVE: PRACTICE SAYING THE WORD “NO” OUT LOUD. If you aren’t accustomed to saying the word “no,” it can be uncomfortable to say. Just saying it out loud enough times that it becomes part of your vocabulary can help you become a No Master. And because there always need to be some levity in all we do (another critical piece to work-life balance and harmony), here’s a little tune to use when practicing saying “NO” out loud in your car (Sung to the tune of the chorus from”Magic” by Selena Gomez):


It’s magic, you know

Never believe it’s not NO

It’s magic, you know

Never believe, it’s not NO