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Liz O'Donnell Headshot

Can't Say No? Say Yes Instead

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Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

In the client service business, it's frowned upon to say "no" to client requests. Customers typically want to do business with people who are pleasant and accommodating. But sometimes, a no is called for. When a client has an unrealistic deadline, impossible-to-meet expectations or is looking for something that is off-strategy, no makes sense. But if you say no, you run the risk there is probably another firm willing to say yes.

Where I work, we get to no though yes; it's part of our service DNA. It means that we acknowledge and accept our clients' requests and then we work with them to determine exactly what is important to them and how we can make it happen. Sometimes what we ultimately deliver doesn't look anything like the original request -- it's technically a no, but it meets the clients' true needs, because we started with a yes.

This strategy of getting to no through yes can also work for busy women trying to juggle too many competing demands. Women frequently tell me that they have a hard time with no. Much of it stems from what I call the good girl syndrome. We are raised to be good our entire lives starting with good daughter, good student, good employee, good wife and good mother. We work hard to be accommodating and agreeable, and by casting ourselves in that role over and over, we begin to believe that is what others expect of us. And often, it is.

Saying no goes against the good-girl character. And so we end up overcommitted, overbooked and overtired because whether we are asked to serve on a board, volunteer in the classroom, aid a neighbor or take on more responsibility at work, we don't like saying no to requests to help other people. As one woman told me, "For so many years I was spreading myself too thin, and as much as I enjoyed spending time with my kids, my priorities were skewed and it became way too much work and not being home enough when they needed me."

Just like in the service business, no becomes easier in your daily life when you get to it through yes. In fact, research suggests our brain may actually be wired to want to say yes. They key to getting to no in a positive way is to get crystal-clear about what it is you are going to say yes to.

You can do this by identifying your non-negotiables - the things in your life that absolutely are not open to debate. They could include spending time with your children, prioritizing your health, focusing on your career, or serving a cause you care about. The list shouldn't be too long - maybe four or five things that truly matter to you.

This is the list you say yes to. Everything else is optional. When you start saying yes to your non-negotiable list, saying no to other requests becomes simple. For example, if daily exercise is on your non-negotiable list, the next time someone asks you to do something that interferes with your workout, say yes to your non-negotiable and your no becomes clear-cut. It gets easier with practice and there are some great organizations like 3 Plus International and She Negotiates that offer coaching to help women practice saying yes. The more you say yes to what truly matters, the easier it is to find your own version of balance in your life.

Why continue to struggle with saying no? Instead, get better at saying yes.