The Fine Art of Saying No

Saying No So You Can Write More

If you're writing novels and doing other work as well, paid or unpaid, Saying No to other things is key to carving out time to write and to feeling happy.

For most of us, though, it's hard to do.

So instead, if you're like me, you become more stressed and overwhelmed. You might feel angry — at yourself for saying yes, at the people who keep asking you to do things, at your entire life or schedule.

So how do you say No?

Understand Your No

There are different reasons for wanting or needing to say No to another task or project. Here are several:

  1. It's something we really want to do for ourselves but we feel overloaded already
  2. Someone we care about asked us to do it and we want to help that person but we feel we have no time
  3. It's something we don't want to do but we feel we should
  4. It's something we don't want to do for any reason

It matters which of the above is true because there's no rule requiring us to say Yes or No without any conditions.

For some tasks that fall into 1-3 we might want or be able to say Yes if the circumstances were right.

So how do we do that?

Saying Yes If…

If you're already stretched to your limit (or beyond) but want to take on something new, ask yourself these questions:

  • Could you fit in the task without too much stress a week or month from now?
  • Is there a way to narrow or limit the task so that it fits your schedule?
  • Can you think of an alternate way to achieve the same goal that will take less time or effort?

For example, I adjunct teach legal writing. My students sometimes ask me if I can help with advice on preparing for interviews or go over an article they've written. The demands of reviewing class work alone often make it hard to get my own writing and publishing done. But I really want to help.

So often I answer with a condition: Yes, I'd love to review your article if getting comments back to you in 3 weeks is soon enough.

Or: Yes, I'm happy to give you advice if you can stay after class one evening (rather than needing me to meet at a separate time).

If I truly can't make time to review an entire article, I might offer to do a narrower task such as meeting to discuss proposed topics or reviewing and marking a limited number of pages with suggested edits.

At times I've also offered instead to connect a student with another lawyer who is more familiar with a particular area of law. (After I've checked to be sure that lawyer is willing to help.)

Saying No Clearly

Sometimes you just need or want to say No. But it can be tricky, even if it's something you absolutely don't want to do. That's especially so if the person asking is someone you care about.

The key is to be clear so you don't get talked out of your No.

Being clear means saying the word No without conditions. Or explanations.

Why no conditions or explanations? As soon as you add either, you're inviting the person to come back with proposed ways you could instead say Yes. Or with arguments about why your explanation isn't valid.

Here's how that usually goes:

You: Sorry, I can't come to dinner Sunday afternoon. That's my only time to write.

Family Member: That's okay – it'll only take a couple hours. You can write after. Or in the morning.

You: No, I can't. I've got budgets to prepare for work in the morning and plans in the evening.

Family Member: Can't you change your plans? And why are you working on the weekend anyway? You work too much.

You get the idea.

Instead, try saying: No, it's not possible for me to be there Sunday. I hope to make it next time.

When your family member (or friend or whoever it is) pushes back and asks why or what you're doing, rather than get drawn in, simply rephrase your answer but say the same thing.

It's just not possible this weekend. I'm sorry to miss it and look forward to another time.

If the person keeps pressing, it's time to say that you need to go (hang up/leave/stop texting) but would love to talk again another time.

The Order Of No

The order in which you give your answer can help protect your relationship.

Notice above I suggested saying No (or it's not possible) first and then ending with a statement that lets the person know you care. That's because the word “but,” even when it's implied as it is in the above examples, is very powerful.

In fact, most of us only hear what comes after the “but.”

Think about the classic “You're a great person, but…” No one thinks there's anything good coming after that. So, likewise, if you start with “I'd love to be there, but…” the listener will walk away thinking about the No.

If you flip the order, you're reassuring the person. Your words make it clearer that saying No is about your schedule, and you value and care about helping that person or being there.

That's all for now. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on fitting writing into your schedule check out Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.

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