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Apr 17, 2016

How Do You Most Easily Say “No”?

Essentialism Energy output

Illustration from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism

Please! Share your best practices for saying no graciously. I’ve tried to be kind, but gotten radio silence in response. Here are two examples that left me feeling badly.

One new acquaintance offered me a personality assessment after she heard me speak, you know, like a Myers Briggs-type test. I’m curious enough to see what’s out there and, after a couple of attempts via broken links, received the online quiz. In each question, you had to choose a most/least likely response. After reading through 2-3 of them, I decided that even taking the test was giving up more time than I wished. You know that feeling? Why am I doing this? I wrote to the woman who made the offer, graciously thanked her for thinking of me, but that I was guarding my time obsessively these days and would respectfully decline moving forward. I thought I’d receive a ‘thanks for letting me know,’ but heard nothing back after that.

Same week a colleague reached out to me for advice on a business request. Everything in her message shouted, “I don’t want to do this!” I completely supported her in not taking on the pro bono assignment and said, “You make this easy. Just say no.” Again, I thought I’d receive an acknowledgment for my consideration of her concern, but again, crickets.

Am I being too harsh? I’ve been accused of abruptness. Please weigh in.

I’m particularly moved currently to preserve my time for what’s most important to me in my work life. After serving my clients which is top priority, I am spending 8-10 hours per week writing. Anyone who wants to write knows how difficult it is to hold the boundary on writing time. It can be extremely porous since you’re only accountable to yourself–“Oh, I’ll just take 15 minutes out of this block of time to make that call, sign up for this new program, etc.” McKeown wrote about naming his writing time as MONK MODE. Any suggestions for what to call mine? MEMOIR MODE?

The illustration above shows what happens when we segment our time vs. when we focus it. It’s from a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown which was recommended to me by a friend. He told me it alter my relationship with saying no vs. yes. He’s right.

McKeown names Parts and Chapters with active verbs like: Explore, Eliminate, Clarify and Dare. My favorite illustration of a gracious “no” came from Peter Drucker to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s request for an interview. Here’s a part of Drucker’s response –

I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter…for I have admired your work for many years…But, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions…I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity…is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours.

Would you have responded to that kind ‘no, thank you.’ Am I being unreasonable to expect anything when I say no?


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  1. Elizabeth H Cottrell (@ElizCottrell)

    Oh, Jane , this piece spoke loud and clear to me, and it shows me, yet again, what a thoughtful and focused woman you are. I, too, have striven to distance myself from the “Tyranny of Shoulds” (e.g. “just because I can, I should”), and I found Essentialism to be so much of a game changer that I bought several copies and gave them to a few of my most beloved people. Ironically, my 37-year-old highly successful daughter was so put off by the stick- figure, simplistic graphics that she couldn’t make herself finish it, but others have loved it.

    I honestly don’t think either of the examples you gave called for anything different on your end. When you stand in your own truth, sometimes others are intimidated by it. I am a people-pleaser, so I know how tough it is when you don’t get the desired or expected response. I have suffered the consequences of a lifetime of difficulty establishing and maintaining my own boundaries, but now in my 60s, I’m getting better at it, and I’m so much happier. Not everyone understands, but that’s okay.

    Proud of you for your writing commitment to yourself!

  2. janepollak

    @ElizCottrell – Might we be sisters separated at birth? Thank you for your thoughtful, encouraging and wise response. I’m so grateful to have you as a constant reader.

  3. Suzanne Ste. Therese

    I have learned to say, “I have another commitment right now” or “at that time” and mean it. It could be to myself for that all important writing time or another appointment. It doesn’t matter: I don’t consider that a part of the conversation in standing my ground. I have “lost time” in so many other ways in my life, I would say the 50’s have given me a great deal of joy in learning how to graciously and gratefully establish boundaries. I have not read Essentialism but, of course, now it is on my list! Thank you, Jane. Also, I think firm is good. It is not unkind. It does not diminish. Rather, it gives the other person clarity. We all don’t need to be liked but we do have
    a foundation to take care of ourselves and live the best lives we can.

    • janepollak

      @Suzanne – You make it so much simpler than I have. I love your wording. “I have another commitment [to myself] right now” sounds kind and firm. Thank you for that. We writers have to look out for each other.

  4. lkcorrado

    You’re not alone, Jane. I recently declined a lunch request by saying my time was fully committed on a particular project and anything not directly involved with that had to wait. The inviter actually gave me grief, taking issue with my response. Since I’ve known her for years, I reached back out to say “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just overwhelmed right now. Please understand.” Her response? *crickets*
    On to your question: are you being too abrupt? I don’t know, maybe. Or maybe just too abrupt for those two people. Whatever. You are who you are, they are who they are. I’ve always found your communication with me to be gracious, even if I didn’t particularly want to hear the words you were saying. ????
    And if it wasn’t even more procrastination than I’m already doing, I’d crack open Essentialism right this second! It’s on my shelf, waiting for me.

    • janepollak

      @lkcorrado – Lots of crickets out there…I love this validation of my process and that I’m not alone. Thanks for your honesty on the ‘abrupt’ piece. I’m working on it…

  5. Diane

    My take is a bit different. I am wondering why you are expecting a response after you (in my opinion) directly and politely declined? Less about them and more about you…what were you looking for? I agree with all above in your right/need/necessity to be aware of your time and how you wish to spend it. Although it hasn’t been the right time to work with you – I follow your emails and blogs with great appreciation and I don’t doubt that you conducted yourself appropriately. I truly think it is how others need to process the directness and honestly, they probably are not used to it in daily life. Let them process as they need and stay true to yourself with positive intention, which is indirectly another gift your soul offers. Be the example and let it be.

    • janepollak

      @Diane – You know, there’s a part of me that still wants everyone to like me and acknowledge me for taking a stand. Martha Beck says you can’t set boundaries and people-please at the same time. I’m still learning that one. Thanks for letting me know you’re there!


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