Can I Really Say No? And If So, How?

By Linda Bodnar, PhD, PCC. Over the last five or ten years, I have seen so many leaders become increasingly overwhelmed and overloaded.  As other leaders leave or organizations restructure, they are asked to take on additional work with no additional resources.  Leaders start asking themselves “How can I take on more when I am already just trying to keep my head above water?”

Other times, leaders are asked to take on projects or teams that in their view don’t make sense, are not going to move the business forward, or aren’t going to be resourced in a way that will allow for success.

When we were two or three years old, we never hesitated to say no when someone asked us to do something we didn’t want to do or didn’t think we should do.  Somewhere along the way, many of us lost that ability!  There can be so many reasons:  

  • We don’t want to disappoint or let others down
  • We worry that their opinion of us will change
  • We’re afraid we will miss out on an opportunity or increased visibility
  • We don’t want to admit we are not superman/superwoman
  • We may seem unappreciative of the offered opportunity; if we don’t take it on now, we may not get another chance

Often it makes sense to say yes.  However, there are times when it is important to say no.  When is that, and how should we do it?  William Ury gives us some wise guidance in his book, The Power of a Positive No.  

Ury proposes that we say no to things we don’t want, but this is only successful when there is an initial yes to our own values and interests.  

A “Positive No” includes 3 parts: a Yes, a No, and a Yes.


The initial Yes is to yourself – that you have a right to be true to your core interests and what truly matters to you.  This Yes is an internal-focused affirmation of your interests.  Instead of focusing on saying No, start by focusing by saying Yes to yourself.  Then you can deliver your No with much more meaning, conviction, and respect — respect to yourself and respect for the other person. 

Key questions to ask yourself to uncover your true Yes are:

  • What am I seeking to create, protect, or change by saying No?
  • If I say No, what am I saying Yes to?  Which is more important to me?  

For example, saying No to a taking on an additional project might be saying Yes to having the time to be with my children.


The No is about saying no with conviction and involves setting limits.  Saying No is not easy — you may need to stand up to the other person’s reaction and power through.  Here are some ways you can empower your No:

  • Have a strong Plan B that is not a fallback plan, but a backup plan you can implement independently of the other person’s agreement
  • Consider the worst case — in order to distinguish fear from reality

For example, if I say No to taking on the additional project, my Plan B (if my boss doesn’t accept my No) might be to activate my network to explore other opportunities.


The second Yes is an external-focused invitation to come to an agreement, to find a mutually beneficial solution that satisfies both their and your interests.  To accomplish this step successfully, it involves all the typical collaboration skills such as showing respect, listening, acknowledging, asking clarifying questions, etc.

For example, I can work on a plan with my boss on how this project can be accomplished by pulling on existing resources that she may not be aware of and engaging some high-potential upcoming leaders who would welcome the visibility.

You may feel like there is no option to say no in your company.  In some cases, that may be true, but I would encourage you to consider that there may be times to be courageous when the initial Yes means enough to you.  This kind of Yes, No, Yes approach can also be very impactful when requests or pressure come from peers or other areas trying to push work on you or your team that may not make sense for you to take on.  

I am guessing that as you reflect on this approach, you may recall times you have used steps 2 and 3 in the past — negotiating for a better outcome by pushing back with a No and working collaboratively to find a Yes that will work as an alternate solution.  I’m not sure how often we think proactively and purposefully about step 1, though.  

As Ury says, we usually start from No, from what we are against.  Instead, he suggests that we do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for.  

The Power of a Positive No.  What can this mean for you?

“A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

To learn more about saying no, and taking control of your development as a leader, schedule a consultation with Linda.