“I realised that saying no was actually all about harnessing the power of saying yes more strategically. The growth and learning curve was exponential, and I could see it.”

In the workplace, saying yes is often seen as the golden rule for getting more opportunities, gaining exposure and climbing the corporate ladder. Especially, for black business women, who are often afraid to miss out on opportunities that are already limited for them compared to their white counterparts in the workplace. Because of this many of us end up being completely ‘no’ averse, developing constant FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), afraid of having our “can do attitude” badge removed from us, or other potential consequences

That was me for a very long time, thinking that being ambitious meant raising my hand all the time and taking everything onto my plate. But here is what happened after years of saying yes too often and not saying no enough. 

I inevitably ended up taking on too much; delivering late, cancelling last minute, and just generally becoming unreliable. Ultimately, becoming drained and on the verge of burnout, tired of trying to do it all and please everyone. I was feeling dissatisfied and frustrated with what I was doing and how I was delivering because it was always a job half done here and there. 

Sound familiar to anyone? When you think about it, it is not just unsustainable to say “yes” all the time, it is also counterproductive and can be detrimental not just to your career but your mental and physical health. .

Now, do not get me wrong. Saying yes can be powerful. It increases your chance of exposure to new ideas, new projects and new people. It allows you to get out of your comfort zone, learn about subjects outside of your area of expertise. And for women, especially women of colour, it gives us a sense of being the person people can count on, the reliable strong (Black) woman that we are expected to be. But the truth is – no matter the benefits we can get by saying yes, we can only fully benefit from them when we learn to say no too. I had to learn it the hard way.

Here is what started to happen when I began to say no. I could set clear boundaries and define expectations for myself and others. I was being more effective and more reliable. Finally, able to fully invest myself in everything that I did and produce better results. I was able to say yes to the things that mattered, focus on key opportunities that were aligned with my personal objectives. I realised that saying no was actually all about harnessing the power of saying yes more strategically. The growth and learning curve was exponential, and I could see it. 

Of course saying no was (and is still) not easy. But a few things helped me make it easier. Here are some “no strategies” you should try:

  1. Planning your no: very often, we know when a request is coming our way. So if you are expecting a request, prepare yourself. It’s not about making excuses. It’s about preparing yourself mentally, to be ready to say no and stick with it, no matter how uncomfortable those 15 seconds of awkward silence may be.
  2. Delaying the no:  a saviour for out-of-the-blue requests. Delay your answer by telling the person you will need to confirm, or ask them to follow up with you at a later stage. This gives you the advantage of ensuring that you are happy to say no, gives you more time to plan your no (as above). It also gives the person who asked, more time to explore other options. They may never even come back to you.
  3. Assertive language – swapping “I can’t” to “I don’t: For me, “I can’t” just wasn’t enough of a good answer. It was not convincing to me, and probably wasn’t convincing the person in front of me either. So I started to change my language and own my no. “I don’t have the capacity” instead of “I can’t do it”. Why does it work? This is not just no to the people you are talking to but also to yourself. It’s not that you “can’t do the job”, it is that you choose to prioritise other, more essential, activities. See the difference? 
  4. Offering alternatives: That’s very handy, especially if being helpful to others is important to you. Bring up alternatives and suggest potential solutions. Maybe the person just didn’t think about them and will be grateful that you mentioned these alternatives. In which case, it’s a win-win.
  5. Explaining the consequences of a yes: Let’s be honest, we cannot always say no. And sometimes, the ultimate decision isn’t ours. Here, ensure you explain clearly how saying yes will compromise other priorities and offer to either deprioritise some things or to pick that new activity up when you are done with your current priorities. Very often, that works fine.

All in all, saying no is an essential skill that all ambitious people must hone, but especially Black Women. Not just for our careers, but also for our own sanity. It’s basic self-care 101. Even with the no strategies above, it takes time to start saying no with confidence. And that’s fine. It’s a constant work in progress on ourselves. But remember, for a hundred yes’s, let there be a thousand no. Because saying no more often is all about saying yes more strategically.

You can also learn about why you should incorporate your story into your business. A great article for those looking to start or grow their business.