The most powerful word in your vocabulary is ‘no’

Recently, Kristen ran a masterclass at a Women’s Leadership conference in New Zealand. The first session focused on dissecting self-limiting beliefs, those invasive negative thoughts that stop us from achieving our full leadership potential. 

Day two was a deep dive into familiar territory for many Powrsuiters: “the juggle”. Work/life balance is a tenuous concept at the best of times, but when you have too many balls in the air, the wrong ones tend to get dropped. Switching to solution mode (our fave), the group brainstormed ways to make their lives less chaotic and create more space for strategic yesses. The biggest takeaway? We need to get comfortable saying ‘no’. So, here’s our handy guide to doing just that:

Superwomen outsource

Your easiest ‘no’ is said through action. If it’s within your budget, consider paying for a cleaner, gardener or food delivery service to help at home. No spare cash? Make sure you’re dividing chores fairly and not shouldering the full burden. At work, outsourcing means delegating work and trusting your team to share the load.

Boundaries work

Boundaries are a secret weapon for maintaining sanity, but that doesn’t make them easy to establish (or enforce). It feels lousy to disappoint a colleague, friend, or boss, and no one wants to be labelled ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘not a team player’. The answer isn’t always to take on more. Learning how to say ‘no’ clearly and helpfully can highlight your strategic value while maintaining a manageable workload. 

The ‘not now’ no 

Instead of a direct refusal, offer an alternative solution that works within your boundaries. Show off your planning and prioritisation skills and give practical context about timelines:

  • I’d love to help, but I won’t be able to give this project the time it needs until [date].
  • This feels lower priority than [existing work] but more urgent than [existing work]. If you agree, I can get onto it straight after I’ve finished up my top priority.

The retrospective no

If you get a request from a sponsor, or an opportunity to take on strategically important work, then you should say yes. You’ll need time for deep work, so review your existing to-do list and retrospectively say no (or ‘not yet’) to some items.

  • I’ve just taken on [important piece of work]. It takes priority over [existing work], so I will either need [x weeks] extra to complete it or pass it over to someone with more capacity. 
  • I’ve just taken on [important piece of work] and would like to discuss discontinuing [existing work]. While it’s useful to do, it’s a much lower priority than [other work] and could be picked up again in a few weeks/months if we think it’s still important.

The grateful no

If there is more than one opportunity to take on valuable work, ask to participate when you have more capacity.

  • Thanks for thinking of me; it sounds great. I want to do my best at [existing work] and can’t take on more responsibilities right now. I’d love to be considered next time!
  • I’d love to join you, but I have a full schedule at the moment. Could I pencil myself in for the next time this opportunity comes up?

The ‘are you kidding me’ no

Is someone asking you to do non-promotable work (e.g. buying gifts, organising social events, bringing in food)? Communicating your boundaries more assertively (and kickstarting a broader conversation about equitably sharing the load) is ok.

  • I’m not the best fit for this task, but I’ll recommend someone who might be.
  • I’m always happy to play my part in building a great culture, but this falls outside my role. If it’s important, we should allocate this type of work equitably or ensure it’s in someone’s job description.

The ‘I need to leave now’ no

Setting personal boundaries is ok, as most of us have commitments outside work hours. The best time to set these? In advance. That way, everyone knows your availability ahead of time and can work around it. Pre-establishing boundaries don’t always mean they’ll be respected, so this ‘no’ is a good opportunity for reinforcement.

  • I’d love to help, but I have a conflicting commitment.
  • I really appreciate you coming to me with this. I have my usual hard stop at [time], so I won’t get to it until [day/time]. 

The ‘not on that committee’ no

Are people continuously coming to you for help solving their problems? Before leaping to action, make sure you’re actually being asked to help (or whether the ‘help’ required is just acknowledgement of the problem):

  • How can I best support you?
  • I hear you; that must be tough. 

No means yes!

It’s your responsibility to manage your workload, ensure you have enough time, and focus on delivering organisational priorities to the best of your ability. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you uncooperative or unfriendly, but it does protect your well-being and makes space for strategic yeses. As with everything, planning makes perfect: Before you say no, determine why you’re saying it, what alternatives you could suggest, and (if applicable) when you could reasonably expect to get on to it.

Then communicate your answer clearly and confidently, and get back to the work that moves you toward your goals.

30 second action:

Say ‘no’ to one unexpected request that doesn’t add value or get you closer to your goals.

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