Five Ways to Say No to Professional Obligations

February 4, 2015

Busy physicians are frequently overwhelmed with competing obligations, both at home and work. You'll be happier if you develop a strategy for saying no.

Despite a well-known songster's suggestion that sorry is the hardest word to say, most of us find saying no even harder. Sometimes it's because we're uncertain about a pending decision, and other times it's due to our own disorganization.

But more often than not we hesitate to say no - even to things we know we're not interested in - because we either don't want to miss out on anything or, more likely, we don't want to let someone down. As a result, many of us take the easy way out by saying yes to almost everything, which leaves us harried, hurried, and hopelessly overcommitted.

While saying a firm no can be challenging, it is also a skill that can be learned. Here are five recommendations to help you graciously get out of things you don't have the time, the attention, or the enthusiasm for.

1. Stop, drop, and listen to your gut. Even the smallest decision requires some soul searching. When you are presented with a choice, it's important to stop what you're doing, drop any distractions, and listen to what your inner guide is telling you to do. We all know at an instinctive level what we have the emotion, expertise, and energy to commit to, yet we often ignore that voice. From now on, pause for a moment to do a comparison of the rewards versus the repercussions of saying yes to yet another obligation.

2. Ask yourself a question. No matter how enticing an opportunity may seem, participating in it is of no use to you if it doesn't come with some degree of personal merit. While it may sound selfish, the only question that really matters when making a decision is, "Will doing this add value to my life?" That value may be emotional, financial, moral, or altruistic. Not pondering this question can skew your priorities and leave you battling to find balance.

3. Buy some time. Snap decisions usually won't serve your best interests. In fact, they can be detrimental to your reputation, especially when you constantly change your mind and need to back track. Many people spontaneously say yes simply to avoid the perceived awkwardness of saying no. When you reply to an invitation with a statement like, "I need some time to think about this. I'll get back to you tomorrow with my answer," you'll be free to consider the consequences of committing.

4. Stop apologizing. Do you trip over apologies every time you say no? Stop it! There's no need to feel bad about making a decision that serves your greater good. "Sorry, I can't make it. I'm so busy. Sorry! Did I say I'm sorry?" can be replaced with, "Thank you for inviting me. I'm unable to attend," or, "I appreciate being included. I'm not in a position to participate." If you feel compelled to give a reason for your unavailability, make it concise and conclusive by saying something like, "I have other commitments I need to honor."

5. Say it like you mean it. Confidence is the key. While some people, like author Anne Lamott, consider the monosyllabic word no to be a complete sentence, you can soften its blow by using three word responses to requests you're unable to accept. For example, decline invitations by combining the three words no, thank, and you. Or, if someone specifically asks, "Are you available to spearhead this committee?" you can link the word no with the words I'm and not. Whatever you do, don't say, "I wish I could, but …" unless you truly mean it. Many people will take that as the opening they need to continue to push you to change your mind.

Our daily decisions either limit or liberate us. And, as challenging as it can be to turn people, opportunities, and adventures down, remember this: Saying no to something you're not primed for will always leave you open to say yes to something you're passionate about.

Sue Jacques is The Civility CEO®, a veteran forensic medical investigator turned corporate civility consultant, professional speaker, and author. Jacques helps individuals and businesses gain confidence, earn respect, create courteous corporate cultures, and prosper through professionalism. She can be reached at info@TheCivilityCEO.com.