The Awesome Power of “No”


By Dan Pryor 

I love helping my colleagues. Saying “yes” makes me feel important. And it pleases them. But sometimes I over-commit because I like saying yes. Volunteering provides opportunities to participate in fun, energizing or very important projects. But I suspect that I – and many other adults with ADHD – often say yes because we haven’t mastered the fine art of saying “no”. 

The requests are seductive. I’ll come to the rescue. They’ll be forever grateful. But, no matter how seductive the request, it is not necessarily the best use of time or energy. And no matter how much as we may be tempted, we cannot say yes every time. If we do, soon we’ll be most well-liked person at the company to be let go because we aren’t getting our own work done. So you do you say “No”? The challenge is to pause, choose the appropriate response, and deliver that response without hurting feelings.

Of course, the key is to be prepared. Because in the moment, the only response we can think of that won’t hurt someone’s feelings is “yes.” So let’s discuss alternative responses we can practice now, before the next person asks for help. We can even practice them with friends and family. (I’ve even jotted my favorite responses on index cards and practiced them until I had them memorized.)

The best response to a request for assistance is, “Let me think it about it and get back to you tomorrow.” It’s not always possible to delay a response overnight, but more time to consider your response is always better than not enough. When a faster reply is required, use these alternatives to help you say no, or to ensure you mean it when you say yes: 

  • “Can I have a few minutes to think about it?” Even a small delay between a request and your response allows you to consider the request in the context of your workload and examine your level of interest and motivation (once the novelty has worn off). An appealing opportunity Thursday afternoon can seem far less appealing on Friday morning. 
  • “When do you need an answer?” If the response is, “Now,” then you automatically answer, “No.” 
  • Mirror the request before you respond. “Are you asking me to represent you at tomorrow’s sales meeting?” You guarantee a clear understanding of the request and get a few critical seconds to pause — and say, “No” or “I need to think about it.” 
  • Give a trusted friend who knows your proclivity for answering “yes” permission to give you the look — the one that says, “Stop! Don’t say yes without thinking.” 
  • You can’t un-ring a bell, but you can change a yes to a no. If you agreed to help but now realize you won’t be able to deliver, say, “Yesterday I agreed to help you but I spoke without thinking. I’m afraid I have to say no; I am over committed.” In the end, you’ll both be happier. 

Learning to say no politely is critical to professional success. If I forget a commitment or miss an agreed-upon deadline, I lose credibility. If this happens regularly, my colleagues won’t consider me trustworthy, and that trust is very difficult to win back. And I don’t just lose trust; I lose opportunities to participate in interesting and important projects. 

When you have ADHD, those interesting projects are the best opportunities to demonstrate your true capabilities in the workplace. Unless I master the art of saying no, I’ll always be too busy to take advantage of these opportunities. And I’ve noticed that the more often I say no, the more appreciative people are when I do say yes, and my help has significantly more impact! 

Based in Austin, Texas, Dan Pryor ( consults, speaks and writes on the subjects of leadership and learning. 


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