“A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

I read a piece by Marshall Goldsmith this week and it really resonated with me. He wrote about how he sometimes has a hard time saying “no.” He wrote, “This is practically impossible as I love the way I feel when I say ‘yes’ more than I hate the way I feel when I’m doing something I don’t want to do!”

Pretty powerful stuff! Most people do enjoy that feeling of saying “yes” to someone, and helping out, making a difference, filling a gap, and solving a problem. We like to be needed. We like to be wanted. We like to feel as if we are making a contribution.

Anyone else out there tend to over-commit? Anyone else out there feel compelled to say “yes” to every “can you please help us out” request that comes your way? The problem with over-committing is that it takes time away from other things that we should be saying “yes” to. If we say “yes” to everything, then we will ultimately run out of room, time and space to say “yes” to anything else.

In our coaching practice, we meet many leaders who are operating with little to no margin. Their lives are filled to the brim. They have no room to take on more, and when they try to, they see one of the plates they are spinning start to wobble, or one of the balls they are juggling start to fall.

Consider this:

  • Sometimes we have to say “no” to this job offer, in order to be available to say “yes” to the next/better opportunity which comes along.
  • Sometimes we have to say “no” to joining another committee at work, in order to be available to say “yes” to joining something that means more to us in the future.
  • Sometimes we have to say “no” to volunteering for another organization or joining another board, in order to say “yes” to something even more personally relevant and meaningful when it comes along.
  • Sometimes we have to say “no” to mentoring yet another up-and-coming employee, in order to say “yes” to having the time to mentor and coach our own children to be up-and-coming adults in society.

Back in the day I taught an assertiveness skills training course at GE and taught people how to say “no.” This article is not, however, about learning how to say “no” to everything. This is about learning how to say “no” in order to say “yes” to other things. There’s a difference. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself to help clarify when you should say “no” versus “yes.”

1. Ask yourself, “Why am I saying yes?” Is it because you said “yes” last year? Because a friend asked you? Because you think it’s the right thing to do? We frequently confuse “obligation” with “need.” You may feel “obligated” to say “yes,” when in reality you “need” to say “no.” It’s easy to ask the same person year after year to do something because they did it last year and the year before. Share the wealth. By saying “no” you are giving someone else the opportunity to lead this project or join that task-force to gain some new experience.

2. Ask yourself, “Is the best use of my time?” I have some leaders tell me that they have an extra 3 hours in their week so of course they should say “yes” to a certain request. The problem is that they are leaving no margin for other things like taking care of themselves, simply “being” with their families or friends, or leaving room for the inevitable bump in the road that forces us to refocus our time and energy. Not every moment needs to be scheduled. There is something to be learned from having some extra time to think and just be.

3. Ask yourself, “What is my exit strategy?” Marshall Goldsmith made a great suggestion. He said he has an exit strategy in mind before he commits to any new project or opportunity. It is easier to say “yes” if you know the “yes” is for a pre-determined period of time. And, it’s easier to then say “no” and step away when the time comes because you were clear from the beginning about your exit strategy. I see this frequently with people serving on leadership or advisory boards. Many board terms are 2-3 year commitments, yet if you look around, many organizations lack process when it comes to moving people out when their terms are complete. The result is that you end up with a group of people who just seem to hang out, while their passion and energy ebb, and that drags down the energy and effectiveness of the whole group.

4. Ask yourself, “Will this best leverage my passions or skills and will this bring me joy?” Several years ago I was asked to join the Board of a prestigious non-profit. I admit that I contemplated it. It was a “good” Board to be a part of, would bring good visibility, and the organization was meaningful. The problem was that I couldn’t drum up any personal enthusiasm for the mission of the Board. I didn’t have any personal stories that made me want to give my time or my talent to this group. While I had the time, and I did want to get involved on a Board, I knew I was better off waiting until I found something about which I was passionate. Ultimately, I said “no” … and then was able to say “yes” about a year later when the right opportunity came along.

5. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen if I say ‘no?’” It may be that you will never be asked again. It may be that you miss an opportunity that turns out to be golden, but isn’t that life? It’s a constant evaluation of risk and reward, pros and cons, cost and benefits. I was invited to attend an event in NYC several years ago. It was a last minute invitation, would have been relatively expensive to get there, and would have required a lot of juggling to move things around on my calendar and find childcare. I said “no.” In retrospect, I should have said “yes.” I missed out on an opportunity to meet some incredible people, build some important relationships, and celebrate the success of someone I truly admire. Sure, sometimes we are going to say “no” and when we reflect on it, we will realize that we should have said “yes,” but that’s life. You don’t always get it right. No regrets.

The bottom line is this: Sometimes we have to say “no” now, in order to be able to say “yes” to something better in the future.

What do you think?