06/03/2014 02:09 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Owning No

The expression "yes man" exists for a reason: it is very, very difficult to say no - particularly in the context of what feels like a potential opportunity. And there's a reason that the hardship of saying "no" is in the zeitgeist: as Seth Godin recently wrote on his blog, "If you've got talent, people want more of you." So the question for each of us is: will it be "yes" or will it be "no"?

The truth is, saying "yes" reflexively - whether to avoid conflict, to please others, or to fulfill a sense of obligation - can be counter-productive and actually undermine your ability to achieve true and more meaningful goals. We all have suffered from fatigue and poor quality of work from being spread too thin, with the collateral damage of stress, resentment, and frustration adding insult to injury.

That's not to say that an immediate "no" is necessarily the right response either. In fact, we would argue that a reply should never be automatic. Saying "no" requires sensitivity and adroit communication skills, just as "yes" should be an unequivocal statement that you intend to follow through, do great work, and own your actions and outcomes. We advocate asking yourself a basic but essential question: "Why would I choose to say 'yes'?" Are your reasons financial? Are you thinking about doing a favor for a friend? Are you simply afraid to say no? Are you worried you're turning away opportunities? We probably don't have to tell you, but these aren't the best reason to give the thumbs up.

So when is really the right time to say "yes"? When you are committed to doing your best work. When you feel ready to go that extra mile, even if it means pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. When saying "yes" is in line with your values. When your instinct is that yes "feels right." Life experience, and well-worn clichés, dictates that sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

Then, say "no" when you are truly not interested in the process or the outcome; say "no" when you simply aren't the best person for the job; say "no" if you would have to compromise your integrity or standards; say "no" when saying yes means violating your ethics, or any promises you have made to yourself or others; and say "no" when the situation is unclear and the lack of focus would hamper your success. This is especially important for leaders and consultants: resist the urge to snag the new client, donor, or whatever the opportunity, if you are not absolutely clear how you and your team can succeed.

Once you feel you've adequately engaged in this inner dialogue and cultivated a sufficient degree of self-awareness, assess out how to engage with the person who has presented you with an offer, opportunity, or invitation. If your answer is yes, offer your agreement with enthusiasm and commitment. If not, gracefully say the two-letter word, express gratitude for the opportunity, and explain briefly why the offer in question is not a good fit.

Saying "no" does not make you look weak-willed; it does not make you seem unappreciative. In fact, we are rethinking the negativity bias entirely. An elegant "no" shows that you have integrity, a particular perspective, inner strength and a sense of direction that propels you to say yes whe