Dear Working Mother,

“Learning to say no is one of the biggest favours you can do for yourself. It will help reduce stress levels and more importantly give you time to focus on what’s truly important.”

I wrote this nugget of wisdom over a year ago as the concluding line in an article called 7 Ways to Say No Guilt Free.

A year on and I’m not much better at saying no now than I was then.  It’s still something I struggle with on a daily basis.

Last week a lovely lady knocked on my door and asked me if I’d do a survey for her PhD.  It would only take 30 minutes and she’d give me a €10 Dunnes Stores voucher for my time.  I had the eternally hungry four month old in my arms whimpering.  The girls were in the kitchen fighting over who should be the driver of the Sylvanian family camper van.

This was the perfect opportunity to just say no – politely of course.  But I find it incredibly difficult to say no.  So I start asking her about her PhD and her survey.  Meanwhile the noise level in my house is creeping up, baby is now trashing around in my arms, wailing.  The girls are now physically yanking the camper van tug-of-war style between them.

The lady took pity on me (or maybe she was frightened at the thought of spending 30 minutes in my noisy abode) and said thanks for your time, I can see you have your hands full.  So I didn’t have to say no in the end.

Later in the week, my mother called.  She wanted me to go to Tesco to buy 12 bottles of wine that was on special offer.  I’ve explained to her before she can just order it online when she sees it on special…but apparently that’s too complicated.  Again I couldn’t say no.  I ended up out in the hurling wind and rain on Sunday night after I got the three kids to bed on the wine buying trip.  By the time I got home I was wet, cold and determined to beat the word NO once and for all.

I thought it was a good time to revisit the seven tips from my previous eletter and see if I can finally get a handle on the simple word that is no:

  1. Politely but firmly decline the request. You don’t need to be defensive and offer ten different reasons why you can’t do the requested task. Try a simple “I’m sorry, due to my schedule I can’t commit to this right now”.  Avoid weak responses such as “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think I can” – these imply you are on the fence and may be convinced to say yes.
  2. When you’re seen as the go to person for all random tasks – respectively remind the requestor that that is not your area of expertise and offer to connect them with the person who can help them with the request.
  3. Put it back on them – this is not saying no outright but asking your boss to decide what project/task is more important.  It helps them realise that your time is not limitless and by pushing more projects onto your work load, other commitments are going to suffer.  Let them decide which is more important.
  4. If saying no outright is too difficult try saying something like “Let me think about it and come back to you” – you’re not committing but have bought yourself sometime to consider the request.  Following up by email or phone to decline is sometimes easier than doing it face to face.
  5. If you would like to get involved in the task or project but your schedule is at maximum capacity, explain that.  Suggest that you contribute in a reduced capacity or down the line when your schedule allows.
  6. Take time to consider important requests – we know we can’t say no to every request that comes our way – determine how much work/time would be needed to deliver the required result and how this would impact your current work schedule.  If you feel you can’t maintain the quality of your current work then say no or reprioritise your schedule with your superior.
  7. You may have to refuse a request more than once – be prepared to stay strong and committed to your original no.  The reasons for saying no initially will not change no matter how much flattery your boss may lavish on your skills to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time.  Firmly repeat your no as necessary, with your original explanation as backup.

Here’s hoping I won’t be republishing these tips for a third time next year.


Martina Perry
The Working Mother