Last week I had the honour of interviewing two inspiring women, entrepreneur Tskenya and equality lawyer and podcast host Kelly Thomson, at a Brilliant Breakfast fundraiser for the Prince’s Trust. I was wowed by the energy and intellect of both women and how easily they spoke on topics as broad ranging as the importance of arts and culture in childhood to the need for allyship right now. In fact, there was only one question that stopped them in their tracks: “How do you both say no?”
The pause in their response and the sea of heads nodding back at us reminded me just how hard it is for women to say no at work, even when we have reached positions of influence or authority. The ‘good girl narrative’, a desire to people-please and a severe lack of positive role modelling on this makes respecting our own boundaries particularly challenging.
I experienced this unspoken expectation in my first role as a junior writer. Despite doing what I understood to be a good job, I was pulled aside one afternoon by my manager and told it had been noted I was saying “no” far too often. I was blindsided, unaware that when asked if I had time to take on another task, I was only supposed to give a yes, regardless of how much I had on my plate. I was duly mortified, and in a bid to never be pulled aside again, my inner people-pleaser kicked in. It took me over a decade of overworking before I found the power to say no again.
The turning point for me was understanding how to say no in such a way that I didn’t feel I was being disrespectful, dismissive or lazy, and it took someone saying no to me so graciously to learn exactly how to do that.
This “no” arrived when I was chairing an industry committee and needed to recruit judges for our prestigious annual awards. I had approached a peer over email who replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me. Although I would love to join the judging committee, I don’t have the time right now to give it the respect and attention it deserves.” I remember the words so clearly because they stopped me in my tracks – they were exactly the words I had been looking for (and, incidentally, I have used them ever since).
When I shared this with Kelly and Tskenya they built on my words, suggesting that the response could be finished by asking: “Can I help you to find someone else instead?” I love the idea that while closing the door on your own participation, you can open the door for someone else who should be at the table but who might not be given that opportunity normally.
So next time you find yourself about to say yes when you want to say no, stop and ask who else could benefit from this opportunity instead. It’s a powerful way to protect your boundaries, strengthen your network, be an ally to others and most importantly turn your no into a yes for someone else.