We’re taught to always say Yes to life, yet No is an equally powerful tool that defines boundaries, bringing forth freedom and even respect
Steve Jobs famously said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
According to Jobs, focus is all about finding and owning your no — getting clear, upfront, about what you will and will not do.
But many of us struggle to determine what we need to say no to in the first place, never mind finding the best way to deliver the news to the impacted parties.
Today, many working professionals (especially women) feel uneasy about delivering a clear, direct, unapologetic No. My clients will regularly say “I can’t say no” or “I’m terrible at saying no.” These self-fulfilling ideas make it harder to get the dreaded phrase out of their mouths in the moment.
As my friends who parent toddlers will tell me, at one point early in our lives, we fell in love with the word ‘No’. The power of it, the definitive sound of it as it came out of our tiny mouths, arms crossed in defiance, the way it would make adults squirm and all eyes turn our way.
When did we lose this unbridled adoration of our power word? Why is it so hard for so many adults today to access a clear, definitive no?
And how do we get good at identifying what things to be nixed in order to deliver the bad news proactively?
Author Adrienne Maree Brown in Pleasure Activism claims that “many of us are taught anti-consent practices as children, to hug and kiss whatever adult comes around asking for affection, that it’s rude if we don’t make the demanded contact. This culture of access based on power grows with us.”
From an early age, we learn that saying yes comes with rewards. Those with power — adults, bosses, systems — must be honored before our own inner wisdom and intuition. And there are consequences for saying no.
Girls especially are socialized to learn that they can best assert control over their environment by being likable. “Learning very early that everybody gets to have an opinion about them, girls learn to abide by this external social authority, which decrees not only what is permissible behavior for them, but what is not,” says Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in Women Don’t Ask. This early learning manifests for women in the professional environment as they resist saying no, competing overtly, and taking risks to ask for what they want.
To cut through the fear of not saying yes, here are 7 steps to help you identify and utilize your own powerful no:
Step 1: Find your clear yes
Tapping into your clear sense of yes and no starts with body awareness. Locking in a strong body sensation is a more reliable instrument than the mind. Think back to a time in your life you felt a clear yes: It may have been when you accepted a job, or a proposal, or a call to adventure. How did it feel in your body? How did it taste, feel, sound, smell? It may have felt like clear mountain air, or the ringing of a bell, or a deep sense of knowing in your gut.
Get curious about your own specific tell because this is your North Star. A clear yes typically feels gentle, bringing with it a sensation of relief, like a simple truth.
My client who left her full-time job to start her own business describes her clear yes as “I just couldn’t NOT do it.” Her clear yes felt neutral, obvious, and lacking drama.
Step 2: ‘No’s exist on a spectrum
Now imagine a time that you said yes when you shouldn’t have. The feeling of doing something that you didn’t want to, or that felt out of alignment for you. In your body, did you experience a subtle feeling of disgust, fatigue, revulsion, a sick stomach, a clouded head, or lots of drama? Remember this feeling so you know what the opposite of your clear yes feels like.
As you get more skilled at toggling between these two feelings, you will be able to feel them in the moment with every decision you come across because the body never lies.
Step 3: If it’s not a yes, and it’s not a no…
If it’s not a clear yes, but it doesn’t feel like a clear no, your mind is probably trying to talk you into doing something your heart doesn’t want to do. Or it could be that you need to collect more data. If more data is needed, run a small experiment to test your decision before you make it and check in with your body’s response.
Can you trust your body to lead you to the right decision?
If your head is trying to convince you of a yes, you will experience the mind working overtime: You’ll feel a strong need for justifications, excuses, validation, and opinions.
Watch out for your inner people-pleasing saboteur who might show up with lots of fear around what other people will think. I have a client who recently spent days asking everyone in her life for advice about a project that in her heart she knew she had to turn down. When she finally did, the simplicity of that no felt like freedom, despite the hours she had wasted making pro and con lists.
Step 4: Saying no makes room for a sacred yes
Robert Holden said, “I first started thinking about ‘Sacred Yes’s about 15 years ago. Back then, I had made a conscious decision to follow my joy. ‘Sacred yes’s help me to prioritize my life. They help me to be focused and stay true to myself.” Once you have gotten clarity about your no, you can start the process of mapping and prioritizing what you want to say no to and what you want to say yes to.
Step 5: The power of no: a leadership case
The process of claiming what you will not do, or where your boundary is, inspires trust and respect. It also helps establish you as a person of high integrity who is clear with your speech and can own what you need. It also makes you more in demand and more desirable.
It can feel vulnerable to say no to something that is only half-right to wait for something potentially perfect. It requires you to pull on your inner resources of self-determination, trust, vision, and intrinsic value. Every time I turn down work that isn’t quite right, fighting through my own wobble and scarcity mindset, I inevitably make space for bigger, better projects that are clearly meant to be yes projects.
Step 6: Delivering no effectively
Did you know that no is a complete sentence? As a recovering people pleaser, I spent a good portion of my life saying no accompanied by a thousand qualifiers meant to soften the blow: “I wish I could… I am so sorry… I would love to but…” offering up excuses and explanations anytime I had to let someone down.
The truth is that these extra words serve to confuse and dilute your integrity and message.
As Tara Moore says in her book Playing Big, women often turn to hedges, apologies, qualifying phrases, and undermining structures because they are avoiding conflict, visibility, and claiming power. By avoiding saying no directly and clearly, you end up conveying tentativeness, self-doubt, or mixed messages. But you can own your message by keeping it short and dropping the qualifiers and excuses.
Step 7: When no becomes a yes (or vice versa)
You are allowed to change your mind. When you own your no, you can also own a shift, a new boundary or a change of heart. With self-trust and commitment, you hold yourself accountable to the choice you are making in this moment. As Henry and Karen Kimsey-House write in Co-Active Coaching, the words yes and no “are two of the simplest words in any language… but they can be two of the most difficult words to say out loud for the whole world to hear.
Saying no to a simple action is much more than taking that one thing off the list. It often means saying no to old beliefs or old expectations, no to self-betrayal, no to habitual ways of reacting to the demands of others.”
As you step into your power, find your truth in the here in now, as best you can, and have fun working with these tools. Give yourself a good margin of error and space and low-stakes scenarios to practice saying no. As you do so, encourage others in your life to also get clear about their own ‘yes and no’s and to act in alignment with that truth. Reclaiming this simple word — NO — will help you reap amazing results.
You may also enjoy reading Radical Responsibility: The Key To Moving From Suffering To True Agency & Freedom by Fleet Maull