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Yes, you can say no

October 20, 2014

Someone asks you to attend an event after work, speak on a panel, or become part of a book group.

You don't want to do it but you

a)    Feel you have to say yes because you want to be nice and being nice is incredibly important to you, plus you believe in the organization’s work. But then your heart sinks because you’ve added one more thing to your overwhelming list of tasks.

b)   Are determined to protect your time so you say no with lots of add-ons like, “So sorry, I’d love to do it but I’m totally swamped at work and my mother-in-law just had a hip replacement so my husband’s staying with her and I have to take care of three kids on my own, and walk the dog. Again, so sorry!”

I want to share these ‘how to say no’ tips I picked up on the online leadership course I’m doing with Gloria Feldt, because they’re too useful not to disseminate. They come from Victoria Pynchon and Lisa Gates of She Negotiates

They key to saying no is to say it firmly and to stop talking after that. Even when every fiber in your body is screaming that it’s not ‘nice’ to refuse and you simply have to churn out excuses to make up for it. No. Stop. Talking.

Vickie and Lisa offer simple lines like, “I’m really working at creating balance in my life right now. No thank you.” No further explanation needed.

There are alternatives depending on how much you care: “I’m sorry if you were counting on me. How can I make it up to you?”

So many women are afraid of feeling horrible - and being horrible - if they say no. I used to hate it, but I’m increasingly protective of my time and I say no quite a bit these days without a twinge of guilt. If you’re one of those people who still struggles with no, consider these responses.

7 ways to say no, from She Negotiates:

1)   No: “Yes, I’d love to take part, and I’m going to have to decline.”

2)   No with help: “I love that you thought of me, and I’m unable to participate. How can I help you find someone else?” (This technique is used by FT columnist Mrs. Moneypenny, who talked about this in episode 27 of The Broad Experience on dropping guilt from our lives.)

3)   No with appreciation: “I think your idea is fabulous, and I’m not able to participate at this time.”

4)   No and yes: “Yes, I’d love to participate, but at a later date. Can you ask me again in January?”

5)   No with specific yes: “I’d love to help you with your project, and I’m on a deadline until Tuesday. Can we meet on Wednesday?”

6)   No when you don’t know: “Sounds interesting. I need to sleep on that.” OR “I need to check with my boss/partner.”

7)   No with values: “If I take on another task right now I wouldn’t be honoring my commitment to my family/work/business.”

Note the use of the word ‘and’ in most of these sentences rather than ‘but’.  I suspect this is a subtle difference that frames the response in a more positive light, but - I mean and - I’m going to see if Vickie or Lisa can weigh in in the comments below.

I realize this is not exclusively a woman thing. My boyfriend hates saying no too, which is sometimes endearing, sometimes exasperating. Still, women are the ones who are are acculturated from birth to be sweet, pleasing and accommodating. Saying no clashes directly with that societal mandate. 


An audience with Iron Erna

September 26, 2014


Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg

Earlier this week I attended an event featuring the Prime Minister of Norway. Until I received the invitation from the New America Foundation I candidly admit I had no idea who ran Norway, let alone that she was a woman. Her name is Erna Solberg, and she heads a conservative government. I went along because I’m fascinated by women who do unusual things – and running a country is still unusual for a woman.

Here’s what I took away from the talk:

The first thing I noticed is that Solberg is not slim. I was surprised and excited by this because as every woman in public life knows, the pressure to look 'good' by western standards is unrelenting. She’s plump and she wore quite a loud print dress, which, again, seemed bold. I imagine a Hollywood stylist would be horrified, but Solberg clearly dresses (always professionally) to suit herself. Hats off to her. She is a female head of state who hasn’t tried to lose 50 pounds to please the tabloids.

Being British I can only imagine what the British press would do to a woman of her size who wanted to become prime minister of Britain. Every other article would make some snide remark about her weight.

Solberg admitted during her conversation with Liza Mundy of the New America Foundation that a female PM did have to put up with more questions and comments on her appearance than a man would. But she believes there is a positive side to this, which is that "people get to know me better as a person."

Known in some circles as ‘Iron Erna’, she said on the one hand the nickname conjured up images of someone who’s ‘too’ tough, unfeeling even. But on the other if it let people know she was able to make difficult decisions, ‘Iron Erna’ was fine with her.

Years ago she watched another female politician cry when she lost an election. At the time she thought, "You can’t let your feelings show in front of other people. You’ll come of as weak." But she’s had a change of heart over the years. Now, she says, who cares? You’re a person with feelings. So what?

Several of my guests on The Broad Experience have echoed what Solberg said next, when asked about why there are still few women in powerful positions in the Norwegian workplace: yes, there are structural impediments, but women are also perfectionists. We are so busy trying to excel in every area that essentially we don’t have the energy to scale a company’s heights.

“I’m a big fan of getting people to lower their shoulders,” she said in her rather charming English. In short, you cannot do everything, so concentrate on the things that are most important to you and leave the rest.

The divorce rate in Norway has dropped lately. Solberg believes this may be because Norwegian fathers get so much paternity leave relative to men in other countries (currently 10 weeks). She thinks that leave helps families bond and stick together.

But Norway is not perfect. Yes, it has a much higher number of female politicians than many other countries and yes, 40% of board members at Norwegian companies are female thanks to a quota system. But in other areas of the workplace, the number of women has not increased. There are fewer female CEOs in Norway than in the US.

Solberg said, “There is a structural problem in our society,” and that is gendered jobs. 48% of Norwegian women work in the public sector, while only 19% of men do. Women continue to do traditionally female jobs such as teaching, nursing and cleaning and men continue to be engineers.

I’ll be talking more about Norway’s gender policies and its attitude to work/life balance in the next episode of the show. Tune in on October 6th.


Introverts at the office

September 12, 2014

Photo: Writer's desk by Mika Marttila, used with Creative Commons license

When I released the latest episode of the podcast on authenticity at the office I suspected it would resonate – after all, a lot of women are criticized at work, subtly or otherwise, for being too ‘pushy’, ‘abrasive’, or ‘intimidating’. It’s that kind of criticism, and how to handle it, that I covered in the show.

But here’s what I didn’t think about – the flipside of that: when women are criticized for not being pushy or outgoing enough.

Last night I had dinner with a friend. She’s a writer in her mid-thirties, who, like me, did not grow up in the US. Being outwardly excessively confident is not her thing. That said, she is highly intelligent, educated, and friendly. For a few years she was freelance, but last year she got her first permanent US job in a corporate setting.

Initially all seemed well.

“Just be yourself,” said her first (male) boss. Shortly afterwards he was pushed aside. Since then, she’s struggled to fit in. And her new bosses have made her very aware that she doesn’t. They’ve carped at her appearance, starting with her hairstyle. She was told her fringe [bangs] made her appear “unapproachable”. She was informed that the top boss “likes big people” (we’re talking personality here) and asked if she could be “bigger”. She is not only physically tiny, but rather unlikely to be able to effect a complete personality change after 30-something years of being herself. Essentially, her workplace is asking her to morph from introvert to extrovert. Which, to me, seems even harder than curbing a more outgoing, say-it-like-it-is personality to mesh with workplace culture.

Hearing her story reminded me of this wonderful New York Times op-ed by Brazilian writer Vanessa Barbara. In the piece she talks about how all Brazilians are seen as extroverts and how difficult it can be when you don't fit this stereotype, particularly in the workplace.

I’m more of an extrovert myself, but I have introvert tendencies. If you’re a natural introvert, how do you manage at work? Does your personality fit your office's culture or not? All stories and tips are welcome.


When women work for free, part 2

September 9, 2014

"The most important thing is to look at yourself and ask how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable." - Kathy Caprino

 Photo 'Money Queen' by @Doug88888 via Creative Commons license:

A year ago I wrote a post called When Women Work for Free. I did it because a) as a writer I find I’m often expected to write for free, but b) as an entrepreneur, I’ve begun to experience what I think of as ‘expectation creep’. This has been happening more this year, thus the follow-up post.

I’ll occasionally hear from someone who asks if they can meet for coffee or have a phone call to ‘pick my brain’ about whatever it is they want to discuss.  Sometimes I’m asked to speak (for free). Now it’s flattering to be asked, and the request usually comes because someone has heard The Broad Experience or they’ve heard me talking about women and work on the radio. I’m happy and grateful they value the show and the conversations we have there. But I find it awkward to have to explain to my correspondents that I need to be paid for my time. This is how I earn a living. I admit I’ve sometimes felt frustrated and resentful that people don’t seem to get that I can’t give away my time for free.

But maybe I’m wrong to feel that way.

The question of how much of yourself to offer out of generosity is more fraught for women than it is for men. Women are expected to be nice, giving, and helpful, and a lot of us find it tough turning people down. As one recent interviewee with her own business told me, “People expect women to do things for free.”

If you’re in this position, read on.

It was this Forbes post – No, You Can’t Pick My Brain, It Costs Too Much - that got me thinking deeply about this. But is the writer, Adrienne Graham, too ungenerous - what Adam Grant would call a 'taker' rather than a 'giver'? Or is she a sensible guardian of her time and money?

I recently asked a few businesswomen I know how they deal with these requests.

Anne Libby is a management consultant in New York. She is not as strict as the author of the ‘No, You Can’t Pick My Brain’ post. Still, Anne told me she’s given up writing (free) guest posts for various sites (this is something those of us who are ‘building our brands’ are often told is a good thing – it’s meant to bring us more audience). Anne says in her case she’s never got a new client from doing that. But here’s what she does: Friday is usually a day when she does not schedule clients. Instead she uses the day for admin, chasing payments, all the extra stuff sole proprietors have to deal with. So when she gets a ‘can I pick your brain over coffee?’ request she says, ‘Sure – here’s a date three Fridays from now, let’s meet at this coffee shop at this time for half an hour.’ That coffee shop happens to be just blocks from her place. Having the meeting take place on her terms works for her. And she says it weeds out a lot of people who aren’t that serious.

Dorie Clark is a writer, speaker and professor whose most recent book, Reinventing You, has generated a lot of interest (and requests).  She rarely does coffee. She is rigorous about protecting her time and replies to most requests with a polite, ‘Sorry, I’m swamped’ boilerplate response.

“If there's a reason I want to build a relationship with the person (they have something they can offer me or seem interesting), then I'll do it,” she says. “But otherwise I'll refer them to articles I've written, or if I want to be semi-nice, I will tell them I don't have time to meet but can answer a specific question.”

Career coach and Forbes blogger Kathy Caprino has thought about this a lot. As a women’s coach with a large following from all her writing on careers, she is inundated with requests to look over people’s resumes (for free) or meet for coffee to give advice. It used to really piss her off, but one day she realized, look, people have no idea what my business model is: they don’t realize this is how I earn my living. She no longer gets mad but instead uses a boilerplate response and points people to the free resources she does offer on her website, explaining that offering them true service requires knowing much more about them, and that that involves a coaching session.

She agrees there’s a societal expectation for women to give of their time for nothing, but she says we can’t use that as an excuse to mope about this issue.

“The most important thing isn’t to blame society and culture,” Kathy says. “The most important thing is to look at yourself and ask how comfortable are you charging? I work with a lot of women and they’re not comfortable.”

This, she says, is the crux of this issue for many women, myself included. Many of us have set up businesses, such as consulting or coaching, where helping people is part of the deal. Even we are ambivalent about what our value is and what we should charge. Kathy says anyone setting up a service business needs to go through a process to arrive at what they should charge, and be comfortable with it.

“First you have to do exhaustive competitive research,” she says. “What do others charge – what are their packages, services, how do they deliver, what do they deliver? Then look at yourself – what am I bringing, how am I unique? What are the outcomes I can guarantee delivering?” (There are some good tips on how to revamp your attitude to charging in this post of hers from earlier this year.)

Then, she says, “You start setting what those prices are and you start offering that.”

She says the key is to learn to be comfortable with the fact that this is what you are worth.  Sure, be generous to the extent that you want given limits on your time. But don’t forget you are running a business and you need to be paid.

“You’ve got to set the boundaries and live with it, that’s really what it’s about.”

What are your experiences of giving your time? How strongly do you feel about being generous versus being paid? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


Leaving a long-term job takes courage, especially if you're a woman

August 25, 2014

This piece of mine was published on last week and is still being passed around and commented on. Every time I write or broadcast about this topic I get a huge response. The fear of leaving a long-term job, even when it's time to go, is clearly something that resonates with many women. 

As a result of the post, I was asked to be a guest on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on August 27th. You can listen to that segment here.