Women leading women

Saying No: Why no is not a dirty word.

Have you said ‘yes, sure’ when you really mean ‘no way’? Have you said yes to ‘opportunities’ you knew in your heart you didn’t want, ‘no problem’ to a meeting you knew wasn’t going anywhere, yes a dozen things that could have been halted with two little letters?

We’ve all been there. Sometimes, ‘no’ can be the hardest word of all.

But that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

Why we avoid the little n-word

There are three main reasons women in business avoid saying no (see if they sound familiar!):

  •  1) Missing an opportunity: If I say no to a meeting/offer I may miss an opportunity and never get it again
  • 2) Being liked: If I say no to a client’s needs they won’t like me
  • 3) Fear of lack: If I say no to a new client (that I’m not keen to take on) I will miss out on that money

All of these come down to one word:


There’s a wallop of  fear of loss: that critic in your head tells you that if you say ‘no’ to an opportunity of some sort you’ll end up losing clients and customers and going broke.

There also a fear of being rejected: only heartless people say ‘no’ (goes the popular myth). If you start saying ‘no’, then people won’t like you, and you certainly won’t like yourself (this one is particularly popular among otherwise in-control women).

What happens if you say no?

If you say ‘no’…
Will those terrible things happen?
Will you miss an opportunity by not going to a meeting?
Will your client stop liking you?
Will you miss out on money by saying no to a project?

Quite possibly, yes.

However: this does not mean everyone will hate you and it does not mean your business will fail. In fact, you are likely to get a whole heap of benefits from your no:

  • 1) If you say no to that meeting (because you know it’s not a direction you want to take) you have time and space to do something more meaningful and probably more profitable.
  • 2) If you say no to that client’s needs you are freeing yourself up to deliver what you DO do well and what you DID promise and that gives you a better reputation and more satisfaction.

It gives you the confidence that next time you take on a client it isn’t going to be an out of control experience. You are more likely to focus on getting clients and work you do like and do do well and that sort of thing is better for your business than being a doormat.

Most importantly by saying NO when you know the request is wrong, you are setting yourself up as the expert.

I love my local pizza place who argues with me when I ask for substitutions. They know their pizzas and it shows. I love my hair stylist who refused a style and gave me a better one. He was right, again.

  • 3) If you say no to a new client or contract or direction that will bring in easy money but that your heart is screaming ‘no’, then you free yourself up – force yourself in fact – to move in an even better direction.

An early turning point in my business came when I turned down a contract for work in my ‘old field’. The money would have set me up for 6 months. I needed it. But after a week spent agonizing I realized that there was no way I wanted that life again – if I’d taken that route I don’t think I’d be doing what I do today. That ‘no’ opened up a heap of new yeses, because this time, I didn’t take the easy route.

Saying no is a way of letting go of the ‘good enough’ to get the great.

Problem: ‘yes’ is easier than ‘no’

The easy answer is usually ‘not saying no’. ‘No’ seems too much hassle so it’s easy to think “what’s the cost of a quick yes?”.

It’s just so much easier for Jane to agree to meet that contact so they can ‘pick her brains’, even though she knows that nothing will come out of it except for her feeling frustrated and undervalued, at having given away for free something she could charge for.

Saying ‘no’ seems so mean. So unnecessary. After all, Jane tells herself, it’s only an hour or two, she can spare that for a meeting (even though really, she needs that time and energy to expand her business which isn’t earning as much as she’d like).

Whenever Alex does something for free for an existing client she says to herself, “it’s better to say yes, it’s only a bit more work for me” but every time, it eats into her weekends.

For Annie, who keeps saying ‘ok’ to work that she promises herself she’ll no longer do, it’s “just good sense” to take what’s out there in this “difficult economy”. Even though it means she doesn’t have time or energy to promote her new service,the one she really wants to do.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

…‘Yes’ to one thing means ‘no’ to another.


You do not have infinite time. You can’t do it all.

You have to choose those ‘yeses’ carefully, because every time you say yes to one thing you are saying a big NO to everything else you could be doing.

So: are you saying yes consciously, or on autopilot? Are you saying yes because it’s the best option, or are you saying it out of guilt?

Whenever you fail to say no to something out of fear it is usually because you are afraid you won’t get it in another way.

At the back of every yes lurks a usually unconscious fear that this opportunity, this customer, this contact will be your one chance. Lose it and lose everything. Say ‘no’ to that opportunity and you’re throwing away money you won’t be able to replace.

Consider the opposite: if you have confidence in yourself and confidence there are plenty of other opportunities that will come your way then ‘no’ is not a death sentence. It’s just a little two letter word. When you come from a place of confidence you weigh up the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ as equal options and choose the one that best benefits you in the long term (not the one that makes you feel less nervy right now).

On top of that, when you say yes to something out of fear then it rarely works out anyway – I’m sure we’ve all taken on a client we really wanted to say ‘no’ to from the off. Hmm. Remember how well THAT went?

It holds true so much of the time: you goes along to the party they never really wanted to go to, you stay for years in a relationship or a job they don’t really want to be in. A fake ‘alright then’ is often not in your best long term interests.


People will not hate you for saying no

So much of this no-avoidance is about being liked (as the ultimate approval junkie I am totally on your wavelength here too!)

As Gemma says: I always find that I say yes automatically, rearrange my life to accommodate whatever the other person’s need is, and THEN think, “Well, hang on, why the hell am I doing this?!”. If I can’t do something then I find myself giving a bunch of excuses (normally mostly true) just to make sure that they understand I’m not an awful human being. So I basically say yes so that people like me.

Let’s just put this shoe on the other foot: have you ever disliked someone, rejected them, for saying a polite and entirely fair ‘no’ to an invitation or request?

I don’t think so.

The reality is that well adjusted, decent people do not blow up and walk away forever because you had to say no. If someone does this, they are not a well adjusted decent person. The problem is theirs, not yours, and I suggest tht they would have been trouble no matter what.

If you’re considering saying no consider what your response to be if you were on the receiving end: that’s a far better judge of reality than any fearful fantasies your inner critic is dreaming up.

Just a thought…

Want to know how to say the little n-word and not have your world implode? Look out tomorrow for part two of our ‘saying no’ posts.


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  1. Larissa says

    I was just like that, until I realized that all the things I was afraid of still happen. That’s how I actually quieted from saying “yes” all the time 🙂 great post! thanks you.

  2. Elizabeth Adams says

    Before saying no, I have to think of what the other person would feel. But then again, I’ll still have to think of a way on how to say it in a nice way or in a different pattern.

  3. Trisha Cupra says

    I agree – up to a point. You should definitely say “No” to things that waste your time and/or energy by not improving anything.

    There are also many situations where you shouldn’t say “No”, such as:

    – When you say “No” to something good because you just can’t be bothered to (some people are truly lazy)

    – When you say “No” to a promising opportunity because you’re scared of something

    – When you say “No” out of spite or to get revenge for a grudge you’re holding

    I love the movie “Yes Man”. There’s so much talk about women being doormats and how we’re addicted to saying “Yes” to everything – but that doesn’t mean you turn around and start being a selfish, self-centred, egocentric brat who only says “Yes” when it’s directly benefitting themselves.

    There needs to be a healthy balance. Otherwise, why would anyone contribute to charity or do anything simply because being kind and helpful is the right thing to do, and makes the world a better place?

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