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The graceful art of saying “no” – part 1

“Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough” Josh Billings



Why is it that some people seem to be able to say “no” easily, with no sense of remorse, and some of us finding uttering the word excruciatingly difficult and are left with a guilt laden hangover for hours (or even days) afterwards?


In the past I would have said that the people who say no easily are selfish, self-centred, lacking in emotional intelligence and arrogant.  And maybe that is true of some people but I know that is not the case for many of the people who are very comfortable not agreeing to every request or suggestion made to them.


The thing that makes the difference is the intention behind the no.


Over the past 2-3 years I have been experimenting with the graceful art of saying no and it has had a transformative effect on my ability to lead my business and achieve balance in my life.


Perhaps when first read that phrase – “the graceful art of saying no” – in Greg McKeown’s wonderful book “essentialism” it was the feeling it evoked that gave me the courage to start experimenting.  It sounded beautiful, gentle and skilful (the very opposite of selfish, self-centred, lacking in emotional intelligence and arrogant!).  Or perhaps it was that it just made sense:


That sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is say no.


It isn’t necessarily easy to start with but I have discovered that there are two parts to this approach.  One part is the skill of saying no gracefully (which is relatively easy to learn) and the other part is having a very strong sense of purpose (which is not always so easy to connect with).  The crucial point is that the first part is so much easier when you have defined the second.


Pause for a moment and bring to mind a situation or area in your life where you currently say yes when you know you need to say no (e.g. a relationship, your job, health, money etc.).  Answer these 3 questions:


  1. What is important to me about _______ (insert the aspect of your life in which you need to say no)?
  2. What do I want in this area of my life? (e.g. freedom, autonomy, happiness, connection…..)
  3. Will saying yes to this request take me closer to achieving that? (if “yes” then it’s a yes, if it’s “no” or “I’m not sure”, it’s a no).


Answering these questions honestly will reveal your purpose or intention in that area of your life and help you feel confident that you are saying no for the right reasons.  Your purpose or intention helps you set boundaries and boundaries are critical if you are to manage your time, energy and attention successfully.


When I started to get really clear about what was important to me about the work I do I found it so much easier to say no when I was offered work that didn’t fit with my sense of purpose.  It made it so much easier not to get swept along by that voice in my head that told me I’d be letting people down if I said no or that I might not get another piece of work for a while.  It wasn’t that I needed to respond differently to the voice in my head, I just found that it got quieter.


What seems to happen when we are clear on what is important is that we break that head and heart conflict that often arises in people who find saying no difficult.  The head and the heart become more aligned so one doesn’t try to out-do the other and the conflict eases.


So……that’s the starting point in the graceful art of saying no.  Take some time to answer the 3 questions so that you get clarity on your purpose and intention in an area of your life where you feel you lack time, energy or will-power.  You will know you’ve hit on it when your heart, or your gut, agrees with what your head is thinking.


I’ll come back to the other part of this approach – the skill of saying no – in my next article.  If you want to make sure you don’t miss it, drop me a message or email me on susan@sgdevelopmentsolutions.com and I’ll make sure it gets sent straight to your mailbox.


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