Back to Basics
Saying Yes and Saying No
by Grace Welker

There are seven of us on the women’s leadership call this particular Wednesday in March. The topic this month is saying “yes” and “no.” Baby stuff, right? We are women who run organizations, departments within organizations, or our own entrepreneurial ventures. We have households, spouses, children, and pets. We face “yes/no” decisions all the time. We take in facts, weigh priorities, make clear choices — and other people listen.

Yet … in the collective space of this call, we tell another, truer story: In the bigger picture, more often than not, we’re not clear, we don’t have our priorities straight, and we don’t listen — to ourselves. We often say “yes” to things we don’t want to do and don’t have time for, and to people we haven’t learned how to say “no” to. We definitely don’t say “yes” to ourselves often enough, to the things that are good for us and bring us the most joy — whether it’s a healthy breakfast, a 3-minute dance break in the middle of the workday, or learning how to play guitar.

One of the women mentions Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes’ popular memoir about overcoming crippling social anxiety and body issues through the practice of saying “yes” to everything for a year. It completely transformed her life.

“What I really need is a year of ‘no,’” says another woman — we all enthusiastically agree.

In my case, I know that I say yes too much to others. Ironically, I intentionally trained myself in saying “yes,” especially in a work environment. Years ago, I was working as editorial director at a retreat center and when new ideas and projects came up, I was the person in the room calculating the time it would take, the availability of team members, my own to do list, and the alignment with the department’s priorities. I didn’t say “no” exactly but I was cautious, wanting to make sure we didn’t follow the energy of “yes” over a cliff of stress or wasted time and resources.

It happened that one of my closest colleagues always said “yes” to the new ideas. She didn’t seem attached to the practicalities, was willing to explore the concepts and pursue the possibilities. People responded to her enthusiasm. Why wouldn’t they? So I decided to start saying “yes”; to let the stress-and-time-and-personnel chips fall where they may. And it worked; I felt like less of a curmudgeon and more of a team player.

A few years later, when I had begun working for myself, the “yes/no” conundrum came up again. One of the golden rules of freelancing is that you say “yes” to everything — you never know when the jobs might dry up. You want to be available. Luckily, I’d been practicing. So say “yes” I did.

Over time, the more I said “yes” to work, the less I said “yes” to me. I juggled projects and clients, I worked nights and weekends, I hired subcontractors. My creative projects could wait. Ending my unhappy marriage would have to happen down the road. Cooking, which I love to do, could be replaced by take-out and prepared meals from the local grocery store.

Enter the women’s leadership program. I needed help prioritizing. I needed perspective and a supportive group of women with whom I could be truthful about what I was struggling with. As it turned out, I also needed help with some basics. And I wasn’t alone.

During the “yes/no” call, the program leader had us pair up and practice saying only “yes” then only “no” in response to made-up invitations and offers. We were to pay attention to what they each felt like in our bodies, to what was comfortable and what was uncomfortable — so we could begin to recognize our body wisdom the next time we were leaning toward saying the opposite of what we really wanted (or hiding behind “I don’t know”).

“I’d love to fly you out to Chicago to meet this great chef,” my partner began, “and I’ll pay you double your rate to work on writing his new cookbook. You’re the perfect person for it.”

My heart expanded, I felt uplifted and freed up — I realized I was smiling. I could so easily picture dropping everything and devoting myself to this. I knew this sensation I’d been cultivating on purpose very well, letting “yes” sweep me off my feet like a teen-girl crush on a music idol. Regrouping, I exhaled and said “no.”

All of us on the call reported that we would need to practice more with saying “no,” especially in actual life and work circumstances. We felt bad about letting people down. We were susceptible to flattery. We thought no one else could do what needed doing the right way so we might as well do it ourselves.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t like any of this. I wish it weren’t true that even strong, creative, successful women have a hard time saying “no,” that they choose to please others over prioritizing their own needs and desires. And I really dislike the fact that I am one of the women to whom this applies.

I mention in an email to a friend of mine that I’m working with “yes” and “no” — focusing on getting clearer about my priorities and listening more to my body. She writes back: “Lately I’ve been playing with the idea that there’s a ‘yes’ in every ‘no.’” She had just turned down an attractive job offer for a good reason. “In the end, the ‘no’ to them was actually a big ‘yes’ to me.”

On the call, we acknowledge that it’s not all black and white and that the solution is not that we simply needed to say one or the other more often. In some ways, the “yes” and “no” are beside the point — we are learning to listen to our body signals and to get conscious about what we are choosing and why. Each of us has our own “point of practice,” as the program leader describes it. One woman on the call realizes that she always says “I don’t know” when her husband asks where she wants to go for dinner. Another isn’t completely clear on what she is looking for in a new job, and therefore, what she should say “no” to. I always say “yes” to new work projects.

The leader reminds us that this assignment is about getting more skillful with where we put our attention and energy so we can go after what we really want. The final question she has us ask ourselves is this: “What is important enough to me right now that I am willing to risk saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in new ways?” I knew my answer right away. I’d been neglecting my personal creative writing practice for too long; I wanted to find more time to write.

I can’t say that two months after the call, I’ve got it all figured out — or that I haven’t take on a commitment or two too many since then. A couple of times, rather than say “no,” I’ve avoided responding altogether, which, while uncomfortable, kept me from the automatic “yeses” I would otherwise have given. And I did experiment with saying “yes” to myself more often: One late afternoon, I shut down the computer on the earlier side, stepped away from my desk, and went for a walk; I got the ingredients to make a red lentil soup that I love; and I attended a meditation class I was curious about.

But the biggest yes of all? I found the time to write this essay.


P.S. These journal questions are a great way to start reflecting on your own comfort with “no” — then you can try putting a few into practice.

Daring to Say “No”
from LeeAnn Mallorie, founder of Leading in Motion

  1. What is one outstanding invitation that you want to decline but haven’t yet?
  2. What is one thing you said “yes” to recently, but would rather have said “no”? Why didn’t you say “no”? Is there room to renegotiate?
  3. What is one task that you need to take OFF your to do list immediately?
  4. Who are three people in your life that you need to practice saying “no” to more often? What will be challenging about that?

What is one “yes” you want to say to yourself?

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  • Mary says:

    Continuing to explore the unknown and see what arises. I recently retired from a fast-paced, demanding and interesting career and need to give myself time to explore who I am and my new purpose. Saying yes to what is unknown and being patient with what arises is my promise and priority to myself and I believe will lead to my purpose to help others.

  • Donna Brogna says:

    Well I have actually taken the “yes” step. I have been wanting, for a long time, to attend a weekend yoga retreat that is offered at the studio where I practice. However, the retreat location is out of town, and I have severe anxiety about driving to places I do not know. I decided to finally take a blind leap and say yes anyway. I have paid for my reservation and know that somehow, someway, when July comes, I will manage to get there. I have said yes to conquering my anxiety.
    Thank you for your inspiring words of wisdom.

  • Dianna says:

    Yes I will going on a writing retreat to find confidence in speaking and writing

  • Susan Knight says:

    Yes to being comfortable without a plan for the day.