A stack of brown paper with "no" in cursive handwriting surrounded by aesthetically pleasing items on a desk, like plants, glasses, and a paint pallette

Learn How to Say No to Advance Your Career

By Jade Forde, Marketing Specialist at AWIS

Picture this: You just landed the perfect job at the right company, and you’re taking on new tasks, three months in. At first, these new responsibilities seem like a privilege, but eventually, you start to feel anxious and burned out by your increasing workload. You’re still new, so you don’t want your manager to think you can’t handle the job. What can you do?

Headshot of Melanie WildingEarlier in 2022, AWIS hosted a webinar, “How to Say No to Advance Your Career,” that addresses these challenges. Melody Wilding, speaker and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, walked us through scenarios and tactics we can use to set boundaries and to “uncommit” gracefully while keeping our relationships intact.

According to Wilding, boundaries refer to limits, expectations, or personal rules you establish to protect yourself from overcommitting and conserve energy to perform at your best. To protect your boundaries, you must be able to know when to say “no.” Boundaries set space between you and another entity. They define where someone else ends and where you begin, as well as your needs, what influences you, and how you choose to respond when those limits are crossed.

With the pandemic, boundaries have been harder to achieve. Statistics put this into perspective: According to the Harvard Business Review, 85 percent of workers say their well-being has declined in the past year, due in large part to rising workloads. Seventy percent of professionals work on weekends. Forty-five percent say they regularly put in more hours during the week than before the pandemic.

This tendency to take on too much is seen more often with sensitive strivers, high achievers who think and feel everything more intensely. They are ambitious and driven but are more susceptible to people-pleasing. Do you identify as a sensitive striver? Wilding provided some prompts that can help determine if you:

  • Experience emotions to a high level of depth and complexity.
  • Consider yourself to be driven and enjoy pushing yourself to achieve goals.
  • Are kind, compassionate, and empathetic to others.
  • Often out other people’s needs ahead of your own.
  • Judge yourself harshly and tend to take criticism personally.

Now, how do you learn to say “no” when the situation permits? Wilding says you first need to identify the mental blocks of saying no. Common ones are perfectionism, people-pleasing, and “over-functioning.” Perfectionism convinces you that there’s only one right way to do something, so you often struggle to handle a task. People-pleasing shows that you have a strong desire for other people’s approval and less regard for yourself, which causes you to conform to other people’s opinions and expectations, even when you don’t want to. “Overfunctioning” means you operate with the worry that if you don’t do something, it won’t happen, so you assume the responsibility.

Wilding counsels that after identifying your mental blocks, you should use the “three D’s” of setting boundaries and saying no: define, deliver, and defend. First, define where you need to start. Establish a boundary that eases those emotions if you feel tension, resentment, frustration, or discomfort.

Next, assertively deliver your “no” by being clear, concise, and firm. For example, you can say, “I have to decline to focus on [my priority].” Provide a short justification without overexplaining.

Finally, stand firm and calmly defend your decision. When you defend your boundaries, you teach other people how to treat you. When someone doesn’t take no for an answer, handle the situation with any of the following: reiterate your stance, ground yourself, stay level and don’t escalate, use the broken record technique, or diffuse tension with active listening.

Wilding provides another great tip: replace your apology with gratitude. This turns “I’m sorry I can’t” to “Thank you for thinking of me for this.”

For sensitive strivers, these techniques will take time to develop. Pace yourself, and start by saying no to situations that feel manageable. Find an accountability partner to help you stay on track. Create a constraint by setting a date by which you must decide and let the party asking for your help know that a response is coming. Avoid emotional reasoning so you don’t feel guilty and equate guilt with wrongdoing. Internalize your wins, as you practice these techniques by building up a chain of evidence for yourself.

Saying no builds your confidence, and it does not mean that you’re selfish. Your ability to refuse to take on a project creates internal benefits, including more self-awareness, assertiveness, confidence, and improved health, and these, in turn, can lead to raises, bonuses, influence, and career satisfaction. Remember, saying no can help push you into saying yes to the things that best serve you.

If you missed this webinar, be sure to watch the recording, request copies of the scripts, and learn more from Melody Wilding by visiting www.melodywilding.com.

Headshot of Jade Forde

Jade Forde is a Marketing Specialist at AWIS. The New York City native graduated from George Mason University with a B.A. in Communications. Jade led marketing for an IT government contractor until her expertise led her to the nonprofit sector. She has experience in social media, content creation, website maintenance, online communities, graphic design, newsletters, and email marketing. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Digital Strategy from the University of Florida.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.