On Saying ‘No’: the Art and Magic of Declining

Working with groups of academics, practicing ‘saying no’ turns out to be such fun, every single time: “Let’s just practice saying ‘No’. One, two, three: ‘No.’ One, two, three: ‘No’. One more time, one, two…, three… ‘No!'” Faces light up. Saying ‘No!’, very obviously, is fun. And let’s face it. The importance of knowing how to say ‘no’ cannot be overstated in an academic career.

What is more: learning to say ‘no’ empathically should be on top of our lists as academics/human beings.

Saying ‘no’ emphatically

Saying ‘no’ has been a topic on my agenda the past few years. One of the people who inspire me in how to take great care of myself and Others is the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who invented Non Violent Communication. In his view, nothing is more important than being able to say ‘no’ empathically. He reminds us that ‘No’ is always ‘Yes, to something else’.

We should deeply care about the stuff and people we say ‘yes’ to, starting with saying ‘yes’ to our own feelings and needs, and attending to them properly. As academics who usually work with heart and soul on our projects and for our students, we can all do with practical tips and advice on how to say no empathically on a daily basis.

So, I’d love to give you my ‘two cents’ on how to say ‘no’ in 5 steps. These steps are all about being in touch with yourself to such a degree that you don’t only know why you are declining but also feel that you need to be declining.

1. Be in touch with your grand plan (which may vary on a weekly basis)

What is your big plan? What do you strive for? If you’re a PhD student right now, it is quite simple actually: it’s getting your PhD done. If you’re faculty, it is less tangible than ‘getting your project done’, but overall it should be a plan that helps you thrive and bring out your best, whatever that is: your perspective on research, your vision on teaching, your ideas about a nurturing academic environment. Basically, what do you want to be remembered for when you retire? If you’re an academic entrepreneur working on fixed-term contracts: how do your projects fit into a larger picture, of something you are trying to get accomplished in these fixed-term projects?

2. Plan your time off

This is so important. Get this priority straight. If you want to be in touch with yourself, and your grand plan, well… you know… you need time. It is that simple. If you have no time off, and no plans to do the stuff that you really enjoy, that you long for, you can’t get in touch with yourself.

Now, whatever you do, reading this, please don’t turn this into something about money. It is not about money. “I don’t have the money for time off” is simply never true. I am not telling you to book an expensive trip or do impossible things. Just take some time to slow down on a regular basis to do stuff you love and that do fit into your budget, or are the things you want to save up for. You know. That simple. Bring your attention to how important it is to have time off on a regular and predictable basis.

Friendly reminder: Those are the phases that your e-mail goes on auto-reply mentioning a date that you will be back in your office, attending your e-mail again, refreshed and recharged.

3. Consider ‘yes’, consider ‘no’

Whenever you get asked to do something you do not want to do, or invited to a gathering you do not want to attend. Slow down.

  • Consider what saying ‘yes’ will cost you.
  • Consider what saying ‘yes’ will get you.

And then, turn the question around.

  • Consider what ‘no’ will cost you.
  • Consider how saying ‘no’ will benefit you.
  • Consider all of the freedom that saying ‘no’ will bring, to stick to your personal goals and priorities.

Get in touch with that sense of freedom. Just quite literally feel the pleasure of the space that opens up, right there, if you say ‘no’. Feel it. Appropriate it. Want it!

4. Acknowledge your fear, and let love rule

If you feel like you want to be saying ‘no’, and you feel quite hesitant about it at the same time, please, just acknowledge the fear behind your impulse to say ‘yes’ when it is actually ‘no’.

  • You may be afraid to sour your relationship with this Important Other.
  • You may fear that if you say ‘no’ now, you won’t get another chance, another invitation. FOMO…
  • You may fear something else entirely.

Fear is no reason not to stick with your grand plan. In order to realize your grand plan, at some level, you know that means you’ll have to be saying ‘no’ quite a bit. So, whenever ‘fear’ crawls behind your steering wheel: acknowledge that this is happening. Don’t close your eyes to it. It is very human to say ‘yes’ out of fear. We all do it.

It is important to want to raise your awareness in this respect, however. You know… in terms of personal and professional development. So, allow your goal to be: saying ‘no when it is no’ and to say ‘yes when it is yes’. It does not matter how much you screw up in this department. You will. You are human. So, don’t scold yourself when you say ‘yes to no’ or ‘no to yes’.

Be gentle with yourself in this department and promise yourself that you’ll keep trying to say ‘no when it is no’ and ‘yes when it is yes’.

5. Say ‘no’ empathically

Your ‘no’ could be any of these ‘no’s’:

  1. No, not in a million years!
  2. No, not I, but have you thought of her? She* would fit your bill perfectly.
  3. No, not now, but if your invitation still stands next month, I could reconsider.

Becoming firm about your grand plan, giving priority to your own interests: it does not mean that you should become harsh, bitter, tough, frightening. 😉

It just means that you want to pay attention to be(com)ing firm. Not rigid: just firm.

You can do that empathically. In fact: I would strongly recommend it. The Other is a person too. And nobody likes to hear ‘no’. So make your particular ‘no’ understandable and connect with the Other. You are allowed to be perfectly pleasant while saying ‘no’. Being clear to Others is one of the most respectful things you can do.

So, what could your ‘no’ sound like in these three flavors of ‘no’? Imagine you were presented the following 3 questions…

Question 1. ‘Would you want to do [sth you would not want to do, not in a million years]?’

‘Gosh, [the Other’s name], how funny that you should ask me of all people. That is just so not my thing! So, let me be clear about that I am not going to say ‘yes’ to this. But, I am totally flattered that you thought of me. Thank you so much for thinking of me.** And if you ever need a [something(s) you’d love doing], please think of me in time***. Would love to schedule something like that in my agenda and work with you.’

Question 2. ‘Do you want to do [sth you might do if you had all the time in the world]?’

‘What a wonderful project you have going on. Gosh, if I had time, I would certainly want to be on board. But. As you can sense. I have other priorities right now that do not allow me to take on this assignment. Please think of [names of wonderful academics you have in mind]. Thank you so much for thinking of me, though. Would love to work with you in the future.’

Question 3. ‘Do you want to [something you’d love to do yourself but does not fit into your schedule right now]?’

‘Gosh. Thank you for thinking of me, I would so want to say ‘yes’ to your request. I would love doing that. It does not fit into my schedule however. I have to get [your priorities] done this month. Is the schedule for your project negotiable?’

Final Words: Have Fun!

So, having shared this: I am wishing you a lot of fun – foremost – with just practicing saying ‘no’ when it is ‘no’.

You’ll see that practice makes perfect (or something nearing ‘perfect’). Practice will make you comfortable with really considering both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the pros and cons, and making your decision genuinely.

In terms of ‘sharing is caring’: do let me know about your hesitations with saying ‘no’, either below or via e-mail.

* Whether you identify as female or male, I want to recommend you to think of wonderful women first. There is a structural and problematic gender issue in academia when it comes to ‘getting invited’ to give a key note, to a panel, to all sorts of stuff. It’s harming the careers of excellent women and we can do something about this together.

** The importance of saying ‘thank you’ cannot be overstated. The Others are making themselves vulnerable by requesting something. You should always mind their feelings and be sensitive. So, say: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

*** It is very important that you do not feel you have to compensate for your ‘saying no’. You have the right to say ‘no’ when it is ‘no’. Full stop. So, don’t make promises you can’t keep, just to deal with the unnerving fact of declining a request. Be clear about the fact that you have your own agenda and are not available every second.

For further inspiration, please read these wonderful blog posts:

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