Do You Also Say “Yes” When You Actually Mean “No”?

I certainly do (in fact more often than I am willing to admit). And judging from what I hear, other people do too.

You know? The kind of situation when somebody asks you to help out in the labs and you think “Oh yes, why not? It’s going to be fun”. Or when a colleague suggests you as a marker for his student’s project and you agree (the deadline is so far away anyway) only to regret it later when eventually your calendar has filled with commitments that are – let’s face it – more important to you. That’s when you start wondering “Why on earth did I agree to do this?!”

Life as an academic is busy, but you do not have to be a full time faculty member to face requests of your time from all sides.

Recently, I got an email from a PhD student asking for help. For the past two years, this student had been only too keen to say “yes” to continuous requests of his time to prepare materials for conferences, meetings, and papers.

The student was eager to offer his help. After all, it was a great opportunity for him to learn new skills and be seen as a collaborative member of his group and a reliable fellow in the department. Unsurprisingly, various other people started landing more tasks on his desk. Not being able to say “no” to any of these, the student had ended up with loads of extra work, little time to do any reading of his own, even less to move on with his own project, and barely able to prepare for exams. Sadly, neither his supervisor nor his fellow scientists had ever acknowledged his work, which of course did nothing to mitigate the student’s frustration.

The email ended with a laconic “what should I do?”.

I know from experience how hard it can be to say NO to a colleague or a friend. But when the asker is your superior or someone who holds authority over you, saying NO can be next to impossible.

Yet, learning to say NO when appropriate is vital to our well-being.

It seems that the two most common reasons why we feel compelled to say YES even if we mean NO are: sense of guilt (in saying no), and need for approval (whether conscious or not). So, clearly, dealing with these issues may be necessary to stop trying to please everyone.

On a more practical level, however, there are a few things that we can do to put boundaries to other people’s requests of our time. Here, I share some useful techniques that I have borrowed from Olga Degtyareva and Christine Kane.

Take time

Often, we let people approach us at any time of the day, in person, by email, on the phone. Because we may not be in the best frame of mind when put under the spotlight of an unexpected request, we may end up re-acting rather than acting on the call. This means we rarely check whether what we are being asked is something we actually want to do, or whether we are able to, or whether we have time for it. So, a useful tactic here is to take time. Say that you need to “think about it”, or to check your calendar, and you will get back to them as soon as possible with a yes or no answer.

The pro-active NO

Another approach consists in developing and rehearsing a set of useful phrases to say NO in an assertive way. For example:

  • I need to focus on writing my thesis at the moment
  • I have already committed to another task
  • I am not taking any new responsibility for the time being (or until I finish…)
  • I am working on several projects and I do not have any more time in my calendar

Think of more examples to fit your specific circumstances. You may have fun with this one :)

Is this in line with my priorities?

Before agreeing to take on board any new task, ask yourself if this brings you any closer to your goals. If the answer is yes, go ahead. If not, simply and politely refuse. Using one of you pro-active “no” will help you decline gracefully.

Bargain and compromise

Sometimes, saying NO is not appropriate (e.g. you are asked to do something that is part of your job description), but you may still try to negotiate. Can you claim some free time at the end of your assignment? Can you delegate someone else to do some of the other tasks you are doing so that you can make time for this new request? Go a step further and be explicit about exactly what you would like to have in return and try to put yourself and the other person in a win-win situation. Of course, be prepared to hear a NO in return! :)

In general, remember that:

  • if it is not an absolute YES it is a most likely NO
  • when you say NO to others, you say YES to yourself
  • you can say NO without explaining as long as you are clear about your decision

Saying NO will feel awkward at first. But with some practice you may even enjoy it!

Let me know how it goes!