To say ‘no’ is part of success

Success is often built on a reflexive habit of saying “yes” to opportunities that come our way. We’re hungry for any chance to prove ourselves, and when we’re presented with one, we take it, even – or especially – if it seems daunting. (A lesson I learned years ago was to say yes to opportunities that made me feel nervous because the anxiety was a sign that I would learn something useful.) We may also say yes out of a fear that turning down an opportunity even once will send a message that we’re not interested, and people will stop offering us additional responsibilities.

But success tends to attract bigger and better opportunities. As we succeed, a key challenge becomes prioritizing the many opportunities that present themselves. We often try to do this without saying “no” definitively – we still want to keep our options open. Inevitably, though, this results in overcommitment and a lack of clarity, and we wind up disappointing people, exhausting ourselves or simply failing. To prevent this we need to learn how to say no gracefully but firmly, maintaining the relationship while making it clear that this is one opportunity we’re choosing not to pursue. Success in this effort is founded on the ability to manage the emotions that can come up when we close a door or extinguish an option.

These emotions can be subtle: a twinge of regret, a trace of anxiety, a faint voice that whispers, “Are you sure you want to turn this down?” We often respond reflexively to such emotions, driven to eliminate the discomfort they evoke. So we say yes and feel some relief – until later, when we realize the costs of the commitment we’ve made. A critical step in managing these emotions is training ourselves to resist that initial reflexive response. I often describe this to clients and students as “becoming more comfortable with discomfort.” We notice the discomfort provoked by the possibility of saying no, and yet we can tolerate it. We’re not compelled to take action to eliminate it.

There’s no magic formula for saying no more effectively, but here are three steps that can help:
1. SLOW DOWN. Feelings of anxiety generated by the possibility of saying no can escalate into a full-blown threat response, an emotional state in which we have diminished capacity to process information and consider options. Slowing down the pace of an interaction or a decision-making process can allow us to catch up and make the choice that’s right for us, not merely the choice that alleviates our anxiety in the moment.

2. RECOGNIZE OUR EMOTIONAL CUES. We experience many emotions before we recognize them in conscious awareness, but feelings often have physiological markers that can help us identify and name them sooner. Once we’re aware of an emotion, we can take action to influence how we respond. What do we feel – physically – when we consider saying no?

3. PRACTICE. Saying no is like any other interpersonal skill – it feels clumsy and awkward at first, and we can improve only with repeated effort.

(Ed Batista is an executive coach and an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He writes regularly on issues related to coaching and professional development at, and is currently writing a book on self-coaching for Harvard Business Review Press.)

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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