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Career Advice: The Power Of Saying No

Johanna Herbst

Aug 22, 2022

Who enjoys saying no? If you raise your hand, then you are one of the few! Most people don’t enjoy saying no, it’s even fair to say they dread those moments. They might end up agreeing to something as it seems easier than saying no in that moment. Afterwards, it leads to feelings of frustration, resentment, or disappointment to name just a few. How can we turn this around? We need to turn saying no into a conscious act and leverage the power of saying no instead! The power of saying no allows us to live in our values and integrity.

What comes to mind when you think of saying no? Take a deep breath and let it sit with you for a moment, then note it down. The three words that came to my mind were uncomfortable, disappointing, and difficult. Reading those words, I clearly perceive saying no as something negative. I wasn’t even aware that my perception was that negative! Is it truly uncomfortable to say no? Do I really disappoint someone when I disagree? Do I appear difficult if I have a different view?

Before we get to the power of saying no, let me share a story from my work as a consultant. One of my clients asked me to join a meeting series on a day when I didn’t support them. My first impulse was to say yes. It’s my client, I need a good relationship, I want my client to be happy. Well, even if it made my client happy, it did not make me happy! Instead, I felt rather annoyed. First, I was mad at myself for accepting the invitation without blinking twice, even though it was inconvenient. Second, I was annoyed with my client asking for extras on my off-day. A lack of respect came to mind.

I took a deep breath, calmed myself down, and it dawned on me that what truly got to me was this immediate impulse to please my client and not to prioritize myself. By saying yes to a meeting on my “off-day,” I said no to something else. In other words, I said no to myself and my other commitments.

To make things right, I called up my client and explained that I wasn’t able to attend. What did my client respond? “Of course, no worries. We’ll catch up another day then.” Had that been such an uncomfortable situation? Did I disappoint someone? Was I being difficult? No.

In other words, my negative perception of saying no, even when dealing with clients (they are people as well!), is not justified! But how to turn it around?

One key insight is that by saying yes, you say no to something or somebody else. Often times, you say no to yourself!

This is where the power of saying no comes into play! What comes to mind when you think about the “power of saying no”? My three words are: strength, choice, and freedom.

  • Strength because it takes guts to stand up for yourself

  • Choice because I am not obligated to agree (after all, it’s a question!)

  • Freedom because I decide how to spend my time

Do you notice how different these three words are vs. the ones I had for saying no? Is it the same for you? The point is that we need to change how we look at saying no. It’s not this terrible thing. Someone chooses to ask someone a question who then chooses to respond. It's that simple!

Having a choice empowers to take ownership of one’s life. It allows to live in one’s values. If someone asks you to do something, check whether agreeing is honoring your core values. If it is not, treat it as a red flag!

For example, if family is your core value, you will think twice before agreeing to spending additional time away from your kids. If your core value is teamwork, you might say no to working for a company that promotes competition among its employees.

You can always use your core values as a compass when making decisions. If you follow this compass, you will live in your values and in your integrity.

Turning ‘saying no’ into the ‘power of saying no’ enables us to become autonomous: we are in the driver seat of our life.

It sounds easy, but why is it so difficult then? I also see many of my coaching clients struggle with saying no. Our automated response is to say ‘yes’ to a client, boss, or partner. To change this habit, we need to make it conscious and take the automation out of the equation. How? The simplest trick is to take a few deep breath and count to 10 when asked a question. That pause will make it conscious. Use that break to review your options. Ask yourself what you say no to, if you say yes to this request. If the question is about joining a meeting late in the evening, you might say no to having dinner with your child, reading a book, or meeting a friend. Knowing what is at stake will make it easier to understand your best option. And yes, you can also simply say “let me get back to you on this by tomorrow" and take your time to think about it. Remember you are in the driver seat!

What happens if you forget to take a deep breath and immediately respond with yes instead? It happened to me recently. That night, I woke up with that conversation on my mind, it didn’t sit right with me. I had responded too fast and didn’t honor my values. The next morning, I called up my counterpart, explained what had happened, and revised my answer.

Changing habits takes time. You will know though when you missed an opportunity to leverage the power of saying no, e.g., I wake up at night. It happens. Just get back on track and focus on the power of saying no next time!

I hope you feel encouraged to alter your perception of saying no and to leverage the power of saying no going forward. With this little shift you are one step closer to consciously choosing your best life.

In my work as a leadership and career coach, I work with clients who want to take back the driver seat of their lives and, simply put, live better lives. If you want to change the trajectory of your live, please contact me at Every journey starts with a first step.

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