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How I learned to be comfortable with saying “no”

One entrepreneur shares how an illness forced her to prioritize her time.

How I learned to be comfortable with saying “no”
[Photo: oatawa/iStock]

For a long time, I was generous to a fault with my time and attention: A student entrepreneur wants input on her business idea? Happy to help. An employee requests a meeting? I’m available. The nonprofit dearest to me needs an event chairperson? Of course.

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But I’ve reconsidered my reflexive “yes.” Earlier this year, I found myself sitting for an interview on a college student’s nascent podcast, wasting time watching him struggle with his microphone. On top of that, I had to correct the wildly inaccurate biographical details he ascribed to me. The interview ultimately went smoothly, but this “yes” had done me a disservice. I was bustling through a busy season at my company, Influence & Co., and balancing handfuls of priorities that needed my full attention. I realized then I should have listened to my gut instinct and said no.

I embraced that instinct midyear when I became pregnant with my first child and diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum—an extreme form of morning sickness. Dealing with this severe illness while running a business meant I had to figure out how to keep pace at work while being sick every day. I immediately found my reason to veto nonessential requests; I just had to get more comfortable with delivering the news. Here’s how I fought my reticence towards saying “no” to requests.

1. I identified why I have trouble saying no

I had a hard time saying no for so many reasons—I didn’t want people to think I was rude or feel like I was too busy to make time for them. I worried I would miss an opportunity. I felt obligated to show up for those “pick your brain” chats because others had helped me early in my career.

But it wasn’t easy for me to find the real source of my hesitation. In fact, it took a really intense conversation within the entrepreneur group I’m part of. We meet once a month to discuss challenges and solutions together and start by sharing three to five updates, either business or personal, from the past month. We’d begin to each update with the emotion we felt. When it came to my turn, I expressed feeling overwhelmed and ultimately broke down in tears. I didn’t realize it immediately, but I began each update by identifying that I felt “guilty.”

The group spent the next 10 minutes, digging into why my feeling of overwhelm didn’t stem from exhaustion, frustration, or some other emotion—just guilt. Together, we drilled into the “why” and uncovered that I felt guilty saying no to people because I felt I owed them.

2. I outlined my priorities

I’ve become choosier about the people and causes I support because now I assess them against my priorities. I haven’t limited the number of requests I approve each week or attached metrics to evaluate opportunities, but I’ve started taking a moment to think and ask myself these four questions before defaulting to yes:

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  1. Will this help my company in some way? Specifically, is this aligned with our top priorities for the next 90 days?
  2.  Will this give me energy or bring me joy?
  3. Am I the person uniquely qualified to fulfill this request?
  4. How much energy and time will this require from me?

If a request clashes with Influence & Co.’s priorities or threatens to drain my energy, that’s an easy no. If I know a better person to handle a request, I’ll connect the asker and expert. If I can offer a less time-intensive alternative, I’ll do that. It’s much easier to agree to answer a few questions via email, for example, than to sit down for a two-hour meeting.

3. I made a template for saying no

A couple of my mentors helped me craft a somewhat canned response that I could tweak for the occasion that helped me say “no” more and feel guilty less.

That template looks something like this:

Hi, [name],

Thanks for reaching out! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to [meet, attend event, etc.]. To be transparent, I am heads-down focusing on a few key priorities for Influence & Co. right now, and I need to limit my time investment in other areas that don’t fall under that priority list. It’s not been easy for me as I normally love [meeting request], but it’s been beneficial to the company and my work-life balance during this busy season for me. Hopefully, I’ll be in a different spot in a few months and can start to take on more again!

[Offer to connect them with other person or some other alternative, if applicable.]

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Thank you for understanding.

I started sending these emails, and a crazy thing happened: Nobody responded poorly. Instead, I received responses like, “Wow, good for you! I need to be better at doing that!” and “Makes complete sense—I totally understand!” Instead of disappointing people, I was creating more genuine interactions.

When you add responsibility to your life, you have to be more strategic about where you spend your time. I get it, saying no can be difficult. But you’ll be amazed at just how much time (and brain space) you’ll free up.


Kelsey Raymond is the cofounder and CEO of Influence & Co., a full-service content marketing firm that specializes in helping companies strategize, create, publish, and distribute content that accomplishes their goals.

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