A LinkedIn connection that you’ve never met in person asks if you’d like to meet for a coffee. Your boss invites you to a networking dinner with several executives from the office. Your former college professor asks if you would be interested in delivering a speech during the school’s alumni week. Do you say “yes” or “no”?
Television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says in her book Year of Yes that saying “yes” to everything for one year completely changed her life. Rhimes experimented with saying “yes” to every opportunity. She said “yes” to her kids when they asked her to play with them as she was headed out the door to go to work. She said yes to public speaking even though she’s terrified of speaking to audiences. The very act of saying “yes” to the things that scared her actually undid the fear and changed her life in a profound way.
While Rhimes made a conscious decision to say “yes” to every opportunity she was offered, most of us are completely unaware of why we are saying “yes” or “no.” For those who suffer from the disease to please, saying “yes” often comes from the fear of being disliked and the guilt for putting your own agenda ahead of someone else’s desire for your time and attention. Those who may be considered “no” people often say no out of fear of failure. What if I don’t like it? What if I’m not good at it? Others say “no” simply because they have set boundaries and haven’t left any room in their lives for spontaneity and unexpected growth.
There is no “right” way to approach life. Being a “yes” or a “no” person is each met with a set of benefits and limitations. Here’s when to deploy each approach.
Be a “yes” person when you’re starting a new chapter in life
Regan Walsh, an NYU-certified executive and life coach, says trying Rhimes’s “yes to everything” experiment may be beneficial to individuals looking for a drastic life change, such as those who are new to a community or an industry and are trying to create a network where they currently have none. However, she cautions that this is not a sustainable strategy in the long run. “If you do it for too long, you’ll realize you’re actually saying no to a lot because of the yeses you’re giving,” she says. Saying yes to too many things can cause you to be overcommitted and burnt out.
“Yes” people need to beware of losing sight of their goals
Saying “yes” to everything can mean spending too much time on things that don’t move you toward your goals. When you say yes to something that doesn’t align with your goals or interests, you are saying that someone else’s goals are more important than your own. Doing this too often will inevitably slow down your own progress and can add stress in your personal life. “Being a yes person may cause depletion, which weakens our willpower and creates an environment where making good choices is much more difficult, causing us to lash out at colleagues, friends, or family,” says Walsh.
Related: How to get better at saying “no”
Ask these questions before saying “yes”
Before committing to that coffee date or networking opportunity, Walsh recommends giving yourself a time limit to respond to the request. This may be 30 minutes or 24 hours, depending on how confident you are in saying “yes” or “no.” During that time, ask yourself these questions:
- If this opportunity wasn’t handed to me, would I spend time creating it myself?
- What makes this “yes” important to me? Does it excite me personally? Or is it an external desire such as someone will like me?
- If the “yes” is based on an external desire, what am I giving up in order to make this “yes” happen”? “Every “yes” is a “no” to something else,” says Walsh.
Your answers to these questions will help you determine if you’re saying “yes” simply out of habit, or if your yes will help you get closer to where you want to be.
Say “no” when you have clarity of purpose
Being focused on your priorities makes it easier to say “no” to things that distract you from your goals. “No” people understand that turning down opportunities that don’t align with their priorities and objectives means that they have more time to focus on the things that will get them where they want to go. If you need to move quickly, saying “no” to distractions may be the best solution.
Beware of accidentally burning bridges when saying “no”
While turning down activities that distract you from your goals can help you get closer to your goal faster, saying “no” too often can cause some backlash. People may stop offering opportunities and asking you to attend social events because of your repeated rejections.
When setting boundaries, be clear on what you are and are not willing to commit to, ensuring that people have a clear understanding of what you are more likely to say “yes” to, and what you will definitely say “no” to. This avoids hurt feelings and means you’re less likely to burn bridges.
Walsh advises saying no graciously and up front. You may say, “Thanks so much for thinking of me. I appreciate the opportunity and admire what you’re trying to achieve, but I won’t be able to make it.” You may go a step further and offer a suggestion of someone who might be a good fit for the opportunity, positioning yourself as thoughtful and helpful, even though you are turning down their initial request.
Ask these questions before saying “no”
Before saying “no” to an invitation, ask yourself these three questions.
1. Am I afraid of something? Am I saying “no” to an opportunity to be a speaker at this conference because I’m afraid of public speaking?
2. If fear wasn’t a factor, would I say “yes”?
3. What would need to change about this opportunity to make it a “yes”? Is there a small tweak that I can make to help this opportunity align better with my goals and priorities?
Your answers to these questions can help determine whether you are saying “no” for the right reasons, or simply out of habit.