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Published March 28, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Sometimes a person just has to say no

I recently had to say no to an opportunity to lead a community group in its annual fundraiser. It’s a wonderful organization, with great people helping the region in wonderful ways. For those of you who know me, I’m a yes-girl, so this was a difficult decision.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices blogger, INFORUM

I recently had to say no to an opportunity to lead a community group in its annual fundraiser. It’s a wonderful organization, with great people helping the region in wonderful ways.

For those of you who know me, I’m a yes-girl, so this was a difficult decision. My head was saying “Go for it!” but my heart and gut were saying, “Your plate is already too full.”

I’m trying to listen a little harder to my heart and gut, so I eventually declined. But I wished I would have declined in a more graceful way instead of procrastinating. In the end, I missed out on a personal conversation with the executive director because she was out of the office, and felt like a chump for sending an email message and a voicemail to say no.

Why is saying no so hard? Celeste Chua of The Personal Excellence Blog suggests that fear has a lot to do with it: We fear confict, creating disappointment and seeming rude. We may also fear that it may limit future opportunities.

But the biggest reason it’s hard to say no may be our kind hearts because most of us want to help others, even at our own expense. We feel guilty for saying no. Yet over-commitment leads to stress, burnout and even illness, so it’s important to figure this out.

The bottom line is saying no more often is healthy.

Time is a finite, precious resource, and by saying no more often, we have the time we need for ourselves and our own priorities. Saying no allows us to honor existing obligations and devote energy and focus to them. Saying no also opens the door for someone else to step up and say yes to the opportunity.

Consider these tips:

• Know your priorities. Cheryl Richardson, best-selling author and columnist, thinks we should all create an Absolute Yes list to help set personal boundaries and determine true priorities. She suggests that self-care be high on the list, along with activities that bring you joy and work that inspires you.

A Stop Doing list is equally important. What activities or choices make you feel less than ideal? How can these be delegated or avoided? Evaluate new opportunities and obligations in light of these criteria.

• You have a choice. Even if it’s your boss, you can say no. Diplomacy helps. Chau says, “Rather than think that we can’t say no, it’s about learning how to say it and put it across in a manner that the other party can understand and accept.” My staff at Catalyst is getting really good at this, and I’m learning to understand and accept.

• Suggest an alternative. It helps with the guilt factor if you can offer a few tips, leads or an introduction to someone else who might be able to help.

• Keep it simple. The words “No, I can’t” have more power than “I don’t think so.” Be brief, be honest, and be ready to repeat yourself if necessary.

These phrases might work well: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t take it up” or “I’d love to, but I can’t commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment.” Email is fine if the request came that way, but picking up the phone is such a nice, quaintly polite gesture that it might win you a few Brownie points even though you have to decline.

• Be respectful. There are many good causes and good people, and it can be tough to turn them down. Recognizing and appreciating the person or the group even though you can participate at this time shows your respect for their efforts and goals.

Life is so busy. Saying yes means saying no to something else. We all need to make decisions that support our own priorities and needs, and to fill our own vessels first. If we do this, the well never runs dry and we have more to give.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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