The Power of ‘No’

–snippets of inspiration

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember I wrote a blog in June entitled ‘Five Lessons from Burning Out’. In it I shared what I had learnt from burning out in the hope that you might learn from my mistakes and avoid a similar fate. At the end of that blog I said:

“As well as these lessons you’ll also want to think about setting boundaries and learning to say ‘no’ (it’s a shorter word than yes and really easy to use when you get the hang of it!) but more on that another day.”

Welcome to ‘another day’ and some thoughts on the power of saying ‘no’.

‘No’ is a shorter word

When I was a teenager, I would spend hours on the phone in epic ‘therapy’ sessions with friends whose boyfriends had dumped them; I would drop everything to dash out in my car to meet a friend in need irrespective of what was going on for me. I would drive all over the island picking people up and dropping them off for shopping trips, nights out, parties.

Periodically, my mother would say to me “No is a shorter word than Yes darling…and it’s a complete sentence all by itself.” There was an undeniable logic to what she said. ‘No’ is indeed a whole letter shorter than ‘Yes’. And it can, of course, be a complete sentence. No. But I was unconvinced. I just thought my Mum was just being curmudgeonly and mean.

You see, I’d bought into the tyranny of ‘Yes’. I’d swallowed the line that ‘Yes’ meant I was a nice person; that ‘Yes’ was the quickest path to being liked, valued, approved of.

‘Own your No’

Fast forward thirty-plus years…I was on a Mastermind call and after listening to me talking (OK…ranting…) about a recent and very difficult situation with a close friend and business colleague, a wonderful man named Adam Anderson said to me “Sara, you need to start owning your ‘No’”.

Well, dear Reader, it was what my Mum used to call a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. I suddenly realised that even though I was allegedly all grown up, I still hadn’t learnt the lesson my Mum had been trying to teach me as a teenager. I was still a ‘Yes’ person. I was still confusing ‘being nice’ with having no boundaries. I was still buying into the myth that ‘No’ is selfish and that a commitment to being of service means never being able to say ‘No’ to anyone in need.

The Consequences of ‘Yes’

As I pondered the consequences of my addiction to ‘Yes’, I was left in no doubt:

  • That my ‘people’ – my family, my close friends, my ‘inner circle’ – were getting less of me than they deserved
  • That my clients, the people paying for my time, were getting less of me than they needed
  • That I was filling up my time with unpaid ‘work’ that wasn’t building my business or contributing to my mission

Even worse, saying ‘yes’ to everyone else and ‘no’ only to myself meant I was over-worked, over-tired and overwhelmed. And saying ‘yes’ wasn’t even delivering on the false promise of being universally liked because a) not even Mother Teresa was universally liked and b) saying ‘yes’ was creating an unhealthy dose of very unattractive martyrdom!

Learning to say ‘No’

So, how to break the ‘Yes’ habit?

First, accept that you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everyone who asks in order to be considered a nice person. Saying ‘yes’ does not make you a good human being. And saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you mean or selfish or hard-hearted. It means you have boundaries; you respect yourself and you know that you need to take care of yourself if you’re going to avoid burn-out and change the world!

Second, bring consciousness to it. Bring your awareness to how frequently you just say ‘yes’ without giving yourself time to think about the answer. How does that make you feel? Is there a twinge of resentment? A smidgeon of martyrdom? Hmmmm….

Third, make a list of the people that you are always a ‘Yes’ for. My advice would be that there should be no more than 5 people on that list. These are the only people who get a free pass to ‘Yes-ville’.

Fourth, spend some time figuring out things you can say that feel more comfortable to you than a blunt ‘No’. For example:

“Thank you so much for asking but that just doesn’t work for me right now.”

“That’s not really in my bailiwick but let me recommend someone who can help you.”

Fifth, give yourself permission to say ‘No’ to EVERYBODY for a week. Make it a rule for one week that whenever someone asks you to do something for them, you must wait at least ten minutes before saying ‘yes’. You can say ‘I’m flattered you’ve asked me, let me think about it.’ But not ‘Yes’ ‘Sure thing’ ‘Absolutely’ ‘I’d love to’ or any variation on this theme. Notice how difficult you find it not to jump to ‘yes’ and then notice that the sky didn’t fall in.

Sixth, see step five. Repeat.

My name is Sara…

…and I am a recovering ‘Yes’ person.

I believe in the importance of helping others. Generosity is one of my values and one of the guiding principles that underpins Actually. Being ‘of service’ is in my DNA. And yet I keep practicing saying ‘No’. As a result, I have more time back in my days for the people that really matter to me, the work I really want to do and for me.

No allows you to reclaim your power. To reclaim your life. No is a powerful word. My advice is: learn to use it.

Let’s actually change the world!


Sara Price
Sara Price
Sara has spent over 20 years in PR and lobbying working for some of the biggest brands in the world. Her focus now is on supporting visionaries to change the world through the power of great communications. Sara’s career began in the UK Parliament developing an in-depth understanding of the corridors of power. She then worked as a political advisor to UNICEF where she witnessed the power of individuals and organisations to effect global change. Sara sat on the UK Board of one of the world’s largest PR agencies, H&KStrategies, and in 2010 co-founded the award-winning independent communications agency: Pagefield. Over the course of her career, Sara has developed communications programmes for some of the most famous brands in the world from Kelloggs to Airbnb; she has advised organisations as diverse as Lunar Mission One and SheDecides; and created multi-national campaigns for Global Peace Ambassador Prem Rawat. Sara is also a coach, mentor, trainer and soon-to-be published author. Her vision is a world in which everyone with a big dream to make the world a better place feels inspired and empowered to do so. Sara’s enterprise, Actually, exists to fulfil this vision: offering training, advice and support to social entrepreneurs, charity leaders, campaigners and businesses with a social purpose enabling them to change the world.

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  1. I’m kind of the outlier here… First, let me say that I am all about being judicious with our “yes’s” and we certainly can’t say “yes” to everything. Saying “no” is THE thing right now, we’re supposed to say “no” to everything except what keeps us aligned with our north star and takes us to the promised land. I work and spend a lot of time in non-profit land – believe me, everyone, or nearly everyone, is well versed in how to flex their “no” muscles. It’s why the few who have said “yes” quit and are burned out in no time at all. Everyone else is not there, too, so, the few, the passionate, the willing, see that they are stupid to keep trying to change the world by being that positive bright light, so they see all the other “no’s” all comfy cozy at home and decide that it’s time to take their shining light and bury it securely under the bushel basket of home. Don’t worry that your encouragement to say “no” won’t resonate, it is… believe me it is.

    If we could get a few more yes’s to help out, we wouldn’t need to crush the few sad ones who feel like they got stuck with the short end of the deal, and now they have to do it all, alone – because everyone else put on their big people pants and said “no.” Fear not, Sara, “no” is alive and well and thriving and flourishing… People are not only saying “no” – they aren’t even letting us finish asking the question. They’re on their way out of the parking lot, and we end up talking to their tail lights. Pretty soon the last few “yes’s” will be home in their jammies, in front of the fire, like everyone else, not worried about what is or isn’t getting done. They won’t have to wonder why they’re so tired anymore, either.

  2. Thank you, Sara, for the reminder to be clear about when we say, “Yes,” and when it’s important to say, “No, thanks.” I, too, learned through a very curvy, bumpy pathway. I even have learned to say, “No.” to scamming solicitations, charming “sharks in the water,” and opportunities that do not align with my “why I am really here.” Saying, “no” takes great courage as many of us were trained in the being polite world of saying, “yes,” “Yes.” “Yes, of course!” Resentment and martyrdom are not terrific inner qualities to cultivate. Best to become aware of that messy, balancing point of a mixture of yes/no/maybe/let me think about this for awhile (gives us time to check in with that inner guidance!).

    We were not designed to be at the beck and call of others, especially if we end up neglecting ourselves. Giving from full or overflowing feels really good! Feels much more empowering to live in the world of both/and -self-care and care for others.

  3. Saying a thoughtful “No” to some is saying a thoughtful “Yes” to yourself. Life isn’t just about your time; it’s about your energy. Where does saying “Yes” help to fill your tank? Where does saying “Yes” drain it?

    LOVE #5. Thank you; great piece.