The Graceful No

How to get more work done without really trying. Now there’s a topic I could put my bookmark in!

Perusing the bookshelves at my local Barnes & Noble, I pulled out a shiny red-covered book and stared at the imprint in the yellow circle cutout. “Stop the busy work, and start the work that matters.” To be fair, I feel like I must give credit to the book title, Do More Great Work, but this is not a review of the book. The sub-title, though, has a powerful parallel to The Graceful No. To get more work done, be productive with the time we have, and consistently stay on top of our workloads, we have to develop a proper mindset with practical habits. If we are going to stop one thing to start another, we must say “no” to that thing so we can say “yes” to something better.

Is there a secret formula to the Graceful No?

Recently, I was at a family gathering. I looked on, intrigued, as two fathers tried to coax their pre-school aged sons into modeling good behavior, with only marginal success. Their key word was, ‘No!” followed by certifiable dissatisfaction with the results. Reminiscent of that season of my own life, I asked, “Don’t you wish you could say yes more than you say no?” I knew the answer even before it came. We grow weary of the constant, “Don’t do that,” “Stop it,” and “No.” When can we say “yes”?

That made me think. There’s a progression through those first growing pains of independence when our short term destinies are determined for us. Toddlers, curious about the world around them, courageously reach out to new experiences and hear the word “no” a lot! Somewhere along the line, though, we become adults, immersed in community, where we interact with others, become interdependent and seem to have a whimsical attraction to the word “yes.”

Do you recognize yourself in any of these statements?

“Sure. I’ll help with that.”

“Give me a call I’ll stop by and go over it with you.”

“You need 6 dozen cookies? No problem, I’ll fire up the oven.”

“I can drive the kids. I wasn’t doing anything except staying home and relaxing this weekend anyway.”

There is powerful potential in having partners, buddies, co-workers, and comrades to share the work. We have the ability to choose for ourselves and assume we are free to decide yes or decide no. Why then do we so often feel that we can’t say no? In fact, we are compelled to say “yes” frequently! I could be wrong, but I’m going to throw this out there: Sometimes we need a remedy for the Obsessed Yes. Is there a prescription for the Graceful No?

When your heart says no, why does your mind say yes?

It might have a lot to do with mindset. If your mindset is empathy, helping, serving, caring, or valuing others, there could be a strong tendency to gravitate toward “yes” as your default. Many of us know what it’s like to need extra support on a project and what it feels like to be on overload with no assistance available. When a colleague asks for help, it’s like we have the answer “YES” emblazoned on our foreheads. We become a likely target for the “Ask me” campaign. How can you be a thoughtful, supportive teammate, friend or partner and still remain true to yourself and your aspirations, if you say no? At your next opportunity, give yourself time to contemplate whether your answer should be yes or should it be no. When your heart says no and your mind says yes, there is conflict. Consider if the right answer is yes or if you should say a Graceful No.

Getting to the Graceful No

In organizations, there may be no choice of assignment. You might not have the luxury of a decision. These ideas are touch points for when you do have the option to decide.

Time – Ask yourself: Do I have the time or must I make time to assure my contribution is high caliber?
Is your own schedule fluid enough to take on more work? Consider how much added time you will need to dedicate for the duration of this extra project work.
Talent – Ask yourself: If I say yes, will it move me toward my purpose or is this a distraction?
Do the tasks you are asked to perform align with your talents? Are your skills valuable to the project?
Fit – Ask yourself: Am I the best person for the task?
Is this project a good fit with your current contributions? Are there connecting points where your current work and the added work would augment each other?
Benefit – Ask yourself: Are there future benefits that could be discovered if I do this work?
Are there unknowns you could explore that would uncover new knowledge that would be beneficial to the organization?
Desire – Ask yourself: Will this activity bring me joy?
Do you want to assume this extra work because you have a genuine interest in it? Perhaps it’s an area of interest that you know could be advantageous in the short-term with potential for long-term rewards.

We all want to say yes freely and often. We value our co-workers, colleagues, and friends, therefore when they ask for help, we want to volunteer our support. The key is knowing when to use our Best Yes or Graceful No. It’s an exercise in both logistics and character, but using these guidelines will help activate the right version of your truth.

How have you made peace with the process of saying “no”? Tell me about it in the comments!
Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Lead Change Group and is featured here with permission from our Author.


Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
JANE’s professional experience is scattered across industries from financial services and insurance to engineering and manufacturing. Jane sees her background in writing and editing website content as the foundation to her current love of social media. Being an avid reader, meticulous note taker and lifelong learner has fostered her natural pursuit of sharing her world through writing. Reading books and summarizing content started as a hobby and has since grown to be a major part of her vocational experience. Jane says, “Authors pour their heart and soul into writing their book. When I write a review, it’s with intent to celebrate the book and promote the author.” Jane claims to be 'the best follower you'll ever want to meet' and has been repeatedly called servant leader, eternal cheerleader, social media evangelist, and inspirational go-to person. Jane is a contributing author to the inspiring book Chaos to Clarity: Sacred Stories of Transformational Change.

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  1. Your article certainly triggered many a memory Jane.
    I have been in just over 40 countries now, and have learned to say the usual Yes, No, Thank you, Greetings and Peace Be to you, and other simple phrases in as many languages, I have to admit that saying a negative or forceful NO, is very demeaning in many cultures. When working in the humanitarian field for as many years, I have come to train myself to use other alternative words/phrases to create a new avenue of thought which would guide us to a creative outcome. Instead of saying ‘No’, I prefer to interject, “Just a second.. lets look at a New Opportunity…” . I use this anywhere and everywhere I go, and at any level, Ministerial, Diplomatic or at the lowest level. I found this to be extremely creative, and in 99.9% of the cases…… found an amicable resolution. Perhaps we all should look at this earnestly….. ?

    • Jonathan, if anyone has to tell me no, I am certain it would feel like a reward coming from you. The truth is sometimes we have to say no. It’s a relief to know there are alternate ways to say it. Nobody wants ‘no’ to be the answer.

  2. Jane, I once held a seminar entitled “Don’t take other people’s monkeys”. It was along the same lines of saying no. A co-worker walks by you and says “When you go to the staff meeting today tell Joe that I’m going to be late finishing the project he wanted”. He just put his money on your back.