Many of us, myself included, have a hard time saying no to people (although some of the folks I've worked with over the years would surely be surprised to hear I have this issue!).


We get into project management because we want to make things work well and would like everyone to be happy…but there's a dark side to trying to make everyone happy. 

Saying yes when we shouldn't often impacts our personal lives - we work too much on things that we don't want or need to work on (and often shouldn't)  because we committed when we shouldn't have.  We miss dates and deliveries because we said yes when we should have said no.  We start to harbor a simmering resentment toward people who ask for things - why are they putting us in this position in the first place?  Ulcers and insomnia aren't far behind.  Unfortunately, the effect is cumulative - the more we say yes when we shouldn't, the more overloaded we (and our teams) become.


Of course we all want to say yes, but it's important to be able to say No when necessary.  Because I would rather say 'yes' than 'no' (and have spent a fair amount of time regretting it), I have a toolbox of techniques for getting to No:


  • If I didn't go into a meeting prepared to agree to something or take on a specific new action, I don't come out of the meeting having made such an agreement (for anything major)
  • I use the words 'let me get back to you' regularly so I have time to think before I answer.  I give a timeframe ('by the end of the day') and stick to it.
  • I use 'yes, but…' ('Yes, I'll do that for you, but I won't be able to do this other thing you'd like me to do')
  • I prioritize the request in my current list and let someone know when I'm likely to get to it
  • I consider whether I'm really the right person to handle a request.  Maybe I'm the closest, the easiest, or the most likely to say yes - but there's no compelling reason for me to take on the assignment.  If I'm not, I suggest better candidates (they'll be able to help you sooner, more effectively, etc.)
  • I put the request on my Urgent/Important matrix and see if it falls out in the Important quadrants
  • I consider whether I'm making it easier to do the wrong thing by saying 'yes'.  If I am, I'll say 'yes' - but I won't make it easy. ('Sure, I know how to do that…sit down here and we'll go through it step by step.  Why don't you take notes.')
  • I consider what effect saying 'yes' will have on other people.  Will I be working late for weeks and not make it to a family event?  Will someone else on my team have to pick up other work for me because I took this on? Will I be annoyed every time I see the requestor because I didn't say no?  Will I be late on something else I promised to deliver (or not do it altogether - no cookies for the bake sale?) if I take this on?
  • I take a deep breath and remember that I shouldn't be angry at the person asking - I always have the ability to say no.

Of course, there are some situations (and some requestors) that automatically get a yes. (Is your CEO asking?  It's automatically urgent and important.) There are some requests so obvious or so easy that it's an easy yes.  Those are no-brainers, and it's nice to be able to say yes without reservations.



So overall…give yourself time to think. Decide how important this is and whether you're the right or only person to handle it. Put it in your priority list.  And don't be afraid to say no.