The Priceless Value of a Single “No”

Good news! We all have a renewable resource at our disposal that we should use more often. It is the invaluable response of “No”.  

I just helped a client I’ll call Ella prepare to say a very big No: She terminated a client engagement where she was the contractor. It was a difficult decision to make and an uncomfortable one to communicate. And it was absolutely the right decision.  

In her celebratory email to me, Ella said:  

I feel like a weight was lifted! I was too attached to my sense of self as someone who always powers through difficulties. But the work I know I do well had gotten too hard to do. After terminating the contract, my chronic stress was immediately replaced by renewed energy. I already have new opportunities to say “Yes” to. When you free yourself up, the universe responds!  

Here’s how Ella got to her decision: She first tried to clarify project success factors and roles several times and made creative adjustments to her approach. She determined that her expertise and value were being blocked, she saw red flags she could not address from her role. Compensating for the behaviors and skill gaps of others was taking up unbudgeted time. So she carefully prepared and delivered an explanation of her decision to the client’s top leadership. They understood and respected it.  

The much smaller “No’s” we can say week to week similarly yield benefits in terms of stress relief, focus, and productivity. This, in turn, enhances our reliability, confidence, health, and career satisfaction. You’ve likely experienced these benefits when you have resisted doing low value work favors, requested more realistic timelines, or told your manager your full plate needs reprioritizing. Note that you have the ability to do all this without ever actually uttering the word “No” if you personally find it too uncollaborative.  

We (tribal humans) don’t like to disappoint others, which is wonderful…. up to a point. Given our limited time and energy, there is great value in being selective, catching ourselves and understanding the consequences of our everyday impulsive – perhaps habitual – Yes’s. My clients have shared many wonderful a-ha moments, brave conversations, and happy outcomes, when they claim their agency and judiciously use the power of No.  

The word No and all of its equivalents help us thrive personally and professionally. They embody our power of choice. On the flip side, the high stakes of reactive Yes’s include possible burn out, reputational risk, relationships, and even illness.  

Where might a version of No best serve you and the greater good?  

To find my own opportunities, I try to pause before I respond to a request. The next steps are to:  

  • Get a broad, clear perspective on the situation, as objectively as possible
  • Compare the full implications of any version of Yes to a version of No
  • If warranted, craft a No message that concisely includes key information, my thought process (without over personalizing), my values, and respectful empathy for the other person
  • Stand by the decision with self-trust and get the backup support needed

I would love to hear about your most valuable “No’s” and their outcomes!