Of all the topics I hear people discuss, one stands out as seemingly universal: too much to do, not enough time. Admittedly, we have little influence over our “mandatory” workload (e.g. assignments, work tasks, childcare obligations, etc.) However, we frequently become own worst enemy by taking on voluntary positions and projects even when our inner voice is warning us to say “no.” Why is this?
- We agree to help because we believe ourselves to be competent for the job, and think if we don’t help, no one else will.
- We sign ourselves up without carefully considering the extent of the time and work involved.
- We say “yes” because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and don’t know how to gracefully decline.
These explanations reflect the complex interplay of confidence, guilt, time management skill, and emotional connection that come to bear when we are approached with a request. Nonetheless, embracing a couple of realities can be helpful in putting requests into perspective:
- People are asking you for help because you are perceived to be capable, likely to say yes, or both.
- The need for volunteers often outstrips the supply.
- The presence of a need does not equate to your being the best person to fill it.
- People who ask you to help are unaware of everything you have on your plate.
- Each person must serve as his/her own gatekeeper.
- Stepping into a role for the right reasons can be an incredibly positive experience.
Obviously, the decision to assume optional responsibilities should be made carefully. Always resist the urge to give an answer on the spot. Ask how long you have to consider your response. If you are pressured to answer without sufficient time, move to declining.
Once you decide not to move forward, the challenge is how to communicate your decision in a positive and respectful manner. Here is what I have found to work well:
- Thank the person asking for thinking of you. It is a compliment to be asked, even if you don’t want the job.
- Communicate that you have carefully considered the request.
- Affirm the importance of the project/role, and communicate your support for filling this position with the best person.
- Explain that you are respectfully declining the request.
- Provide an explanation such as…
- I don’t believe I am the right person for this job. My skills and interests are not a good fit.
- I am currently too committed elsewhere to be able to serve with excellence.
- I have a conflict of interest because I serve a similar function for a competitive organization.
Periodically, you will run into someone who “won’t take no for an answer.” If you’ve tried everything else, you can always try something like, “Are you saying you want me to accept, even though I’m not interested and will do a lousy job?” This usually results in retreat. If it doesn’t, just laugh and walk away!
Do you have trouble saying “no?” Have you ever agreed to help when you knew you shouldn’t?