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Dear Women, It’s Okay to Say No.

Women Professional Development
StitchCrew Women's Health Accelerator Event

When was the last time you said “no” to an unrealistic deadline? Or to attending a meeting that could’ve been an email? How about volunteering for a committee when you are already over-committed?

At our last VEST Tables session, a member referenced how hard it is for her to say no to opportunities, despite having enough on her plate to make her want to run for the hills. She wasn’t the only one.

Several members expressed feeling this constant pressure to say “yes” to incoming requests to avoid missing out on existing or future opportunities.

“I feel like we are finally being asked to sit at the table, and now I can’t say no for fear I won’t be asked again, or looking like I’m not committed enough”

Other members shared they often say “yes” to avoid disappointing others, or for fear of being labeled difficult.

That same evening, a friend called me to share she had just left an event where a mutual colleague described me as “non-collaborative” because I declined to volunteer in a project she was leading almost two years ago.

Femininity in America

I understand why our colleague thinks I’m not collaborative. We have been raised to say yes and socially conditioned to believe women must be likable, agreeable, and selfless. When we do say “no” there are social consequences, like being perceived as aggressive, less likable, or not a team player.

The fear and guilt of saying no, as well as the eagerness to be all things to all people, is particularly dangerous in today’s environment where more women than ever are downsizing careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to burnout.

As someone who still struggles from time to time with saying “no” out of guilt and fear of sabotaging myself, I had to find tangible ways to help me set boundaries even if it meant being labeled. Here is the advice other women gave me.

Be clear about what you want

Prioritize achieving your own goals or resign to helping others achieve theirs. There is no way around it. Get clear about what you want, why you want it and how you are going to accomplish it. Then schedule accordingly. Having this clarity will help you evaluate opportunities and give you the courage to say no when you need to. Different people have different expectations, values and priorities. Be clear about yours. Knowing your values (your why), will help you decide where to invest your time and energy, without judgement.

Build Discipline

As humans, we are often scared we’ll miss out if we don’t attend that event, meeting, or zoom call. So it’s easy to want to say “yes” to as many things as possible. I used to suffer from this big time early in my career. I attended all the meetings, cocktail parties, networking events, partly because of my own FOMO (fear of missing out) and partly because I feared I could be sabotaging my own opportunities if I didn’t. But somewhere between running two organizations, serving on multiple boards and being a mother, I learned that attending every event for fear of missing out, even if it is a great opportunity, can actually become a distraction if it’s not aligned with my values and the direction I want to go.

Take the time to think about it

If you are not sure whether or not you want to accept the request, ask for time to think about it. Doing this buys you time to review and evaluate what is on your plate. Use this tactic only if you are truly interested or don’t want to say no immediately because you’re not sure whether you have the capacity. If you already know you can’t commit, don’t feel pressured to say maybe. Ambiguous commitments can lead to distrust and only add more stress.

Be gracious

I‘ve been told no hundreds of times. “No, I can’t speak at your event. No, I don’t have time to mentor in your program. No, your deal doesn’t fit our investment thesis.” — I’ve learned to not take it personal, and always appreciate when the response included a small explanation. If you value the individual and the work involved in the request, be sure to let the person know, and explain why you must decline. It’s a nice gesture and it doesn’t require much. If you are still uneasy about whether or not a relationship is going to suffer permanently because you’ve set boundaries, then perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the quality of the relationship. Mutually respectful relationships understand boundaries.

Offer alternatives

You can always offer alternatives. If the date and time is a problem, offer an alternative date. If the project is not appealing or aligned with your values, perhaps you know of someone who might be a good fit. As women, we can take on the responsibility of lifting other women when opportunities present themselves. It’s actually one of the main reasons VEST exists so women can be top of mind for opportunities when opportunities arise. If your boss is making the request and you can’t say no, ask for clear directions to help you prioritize. For example you can say, “I can get this done, but it will take me away from project X, are you okay with shifting priorities? This is actually a great opportunity to communicate all you are working on and get input on the organization’s priorities.

Don’t trade long-term peace for short-term comfort

Saying “yes” is easy. In the moment, it can provide an immediate gratification of helping others. But long-term, if you continue to say yes when your plate is already full, you’ll likely experience burnout. You may even end up dropping the ball on what’s most important to you. Give yourself the grace to say “no” so you can focus on what truly matters to you.


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