Episode 114: My Answer is No (If That's OK With You)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…you know all those requests you get, that strictly speaking aren’t part of the job?

Ask yourself if you have to do it and what you might lose if you say no. Does your livelihood hinge on you saying yes?”

Much of the time it doesn’t. We end up doing it anyway and it eats our time. But there are alternatives.

“Try and say no in a positive fashion. It’ll make you feel a lot less guilty.”

Coming up…setting boundaries without alienating your colleagues.

I’ve always thought of this show as covering some of the themes that run beneath women’s lives. Stuff that isn’t always obvious on the surface but that makes our experiences at work quite different from men’s. One of those differences is that many women find it harder than men to set boundaries, to say no to the many requests that come our way. Women so often feel bad saying no – partly because we want to be helpful, partly because everyone expects us to be.

Recently a friend told me about a book on this topic. I liked the title so much I borrowed it for this show. ‘My Answer is No – if that’s OK with You.’

The author is psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell. She has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the University of California in addition to running a therapy practice.

“I’ve been a clinician seeing mostly women in a psychotherapy practice for more than 40 years, and the struggles that my clients experienced around setting limits in their lives was really the bulk of the work that I did.

I take care of what I call the worried well; healthy, high functioning individuals who struggle with relationships or job problems or career issues and so on. So I found myself over four decades-plus, inventing and developing new strategies for them that were tailored to the situations in which they found themselves. And they wouldn’t have been bringing these issues to therapy if they didn’t care about the relationship, their position, so it was really a matter of finding the best way for them to set a limit when they needed to, and also preserve the relationship, hold on to the job…”

And that is key to why so many women hesitate to say no – we feel like it puts those relationships in jeopardy. We feel like we’re not being nice, or supportive, or helpful – maybe we’ll upset the other person or make them angry or resentful.

AM-T: “Were you immune to this yourself, or not entirely?”

“Absolutely not. First of all I’m a woman, I am very tuned in just inherently to other people’s moods and dissatisfaction, it’s part of who I am. Then I chose to become a physician where it’s an important characteristic of a physician in my opinion that we are tuned into our patients or clients, then I chose to become a psychiatrist where it’s even more important to be tuned into how people are feeling and what’s going on with them, even though they may not be aware of some of their feelings because I’m there to help with that. So I have all those dimensions contributing to being very aware when people are dissatisfied or unhappy…I see myself as being in a profession that’s about being helpful to people in their lives. So if I become aware I’m gonna be letting someone down by saying no, of course that makes it a challenge for me.”

AM-T: “I love that you say at the beginning of the book that women’s desire to help and be there for others is actually a really valuable thing. Some ‘say no’ advice you hear for women doesn’t acknowledge that really. Why do you think it’s important to reiterate there’s much good that can come out of our desire to help people?”

“My clients are often very surprised when I tell them our reluctance to say no often comes from traits that we should value, that include empathy, sensitivity, thoughtfulness and compassion, and that the struggle to say no comes from being tuned in, rather than shut down. And that the paths we take to saying no, no matter how circuitous, can sometimes help us grow. Saying no can be a struggle because of our deeply rooted need for connection, this is very important to us. So to be considerate without jeopardizing our wellbeing or livelihood and at the same time assertive without losing the relationships we value, I see as two of life’s most compelling challenges. For most women the prospect of being less sensitive to the needs of others isn’t appealing even though accommodating their requests can result in personal hardship, and many of us would rather weigh the pros and cons of helping out and finding best possible ways to take care of ourselves as well as the others who are dependent on us.

And that’s also how our brains are wired. We have an aptitude for compassion and connection but so often we hear there’s something terribly wrong with the way we say no, and this is the opposite of what my book is about. We hear put yourself first, stop being a people pleaser and quit worrying about everyone else. But really this is a foreign concept to most of us, because if women as a group became substantially less concerned with the welfare of everyone around us, the consequences for children, the infirm, the disadvantaged and the elderly would be disastrous.”

Because it is women who do so much of that caring work – whether it’s for family or as part of a helping profession. And a lot of you are in those jobs – I’ve heard from teachers, doctors, nurses, coaches. But I had to go back to something Nanette said about women’s brains being wired for compassion. I knew that would have some of you bristling.

AM-T: “You know I just want to pick up on something you said. I get in trouble with some of my listeners when I say ‘women’s brains are wired to’ - I then get these emails saying it’s all socialization, and I agree, women are socialized to help people… but I wonder how you tread around that nature versus nurture thing.”

“Well there’s quite a bit of evidence that our brains as women are wired for connection, however, there are plenty of boys and men who also are also socialized, grow up in environments where those characteristics are nurtured and developed, and I find men in my practice and in my life who are deeply connected individuals also struggle in the same kind of way with setting limits as women do. So it’s really about are you a person who is very relational, if you are, regardless of gender, then you’re gonna struggle with these kinds of issues.”

AM-T: “Well talking about caring people, you’re in a caring profession, you told a great story of an assistant you had, you realized she had mental health issues when she was some way into the job, but you didn’t want to fire her. That was a great example from your own life. Can you talk a bit about what women in helping professions, and there are a lot of them, can do to say no sometimes without people thinking they’re Cruella DeVille?”

“Well I’ll just expand on this personal story, I think it illustrates the complexities of this dynamic. This employee had been with us and doing quite well for a number of years and then all of a sudden I came into the office to begin my day of seeing clients, and I saw there were boxes of baking soda with skulls and crossbones drawn on them next to all the electronic office equipment…and I said, what’s with the baking soda? And she said, the radiation that it gives off is very, very dangerous.”

That was the first sign that something was wrong.

“And over the course of the next few weeks she became more anxious about even being in the office. So obviously she was developing a psychiatric problem.”

Nanette knew psychiatric problems very well. She wasn’t getting the backup she needed in the office, but she couldn’t just let her assistant go. That would have felt inhuman to her.

“So what we did was we helped her get into good treatment and in the process of that she decided she could no longer do the job in our office…so that is how we set the limit essentially. It was helping her get the treatment and facilitating her understanding that she could no longer do the job.”

It was a relief on all fronts – the assistant was getting the help she needed, and Nanette could hire a new person.

She says we need to get one thing straight about setting boundaries, no matter what kind of work we do. And though it sounds obvious when she says it, I think a lot of us lose sight of this.

“You can really only say no when you have a clear sense of your priorities.”

But how many of us have sat there at one point or another and told ourselves everything is equally important?

And once we get over that…

“It’s important to weigh the risks of each no both professionally and personally, and then it’s important to tailor the no to fit the request, it can’t be one size fits all if you care about the relationship with the person who is asking. So basically I’d recommend overall 6 steps in this no process to consider.

The first is, if it’s not an emergency don’t answer immediately. Give yourself time to consider whether you want to do it. And say instead something like, ‘Let me think about this, let me check my schedule, consider my other obligations,’ and be very specific about the date and time you will respond, it’s very important to let people know as soon as possible and it’s very important and to keep your word.”

In other words, be respectful of the person who’s asking. They need to know one way or the other.

“So secondly, ask yourself if you have to do it and what you might lose if you say no. Is the request within the parameters of your job description, does your livelihood hinge on you saying yes, and if you do say yes will it be hardship for you, family, your relationships? And third, does the request fit within your personal priorities, is it part of your personal agenda, will it bring you closer to your goals, will you be happy or fulfilled if you agree to the request? Are you saying yes as part of a desire to be helpful? Are you being asked to do something meaningful or substantive?”

Or is there a colleague who could handle this better, and who might even benefit from doing it?

Number four…

“If you decide it’s not in your best interests to say yes, I suggest you state your no clearly and decisively and at minimum say sorry, I can’t accommodate your request.”

She says a clear, unequivocal no is much easier to deal with than a mushy non-answer that leaves the asker in the twilight zone. I’m already feeling guilty about the number of times I’ve done that.

“Five, you may feel inclined to explain your reasons but I suggest that you be brief. You may want to clarify why it doesn’t fit within your responsibilities or prior commitments or if it’s a policy based decision, explain why your no should not be taken personally. 

And finally, six, if you can, offer other alternatives, because it’s always better to be helpful when you can and sometimes your generosity comes full circle. But I think overall it’s very  important in caring professions and in the workplace in general for women, that we are held to a higher standard when we say no than men are. It’s OK for us to say no if we say it nicely but if it’s not warm and nurturing we often lose points. And therefore finding just the right mixture of firmness and thoughtfulness to communicate a clear limit without alienating people takes training and practice.”

Heather McGregor has that training and practice. Some of you may remember her. She’s been on the show several times. She used to write a column for the Financial Times under the name Mrs. Moneypenny. This woman gets a lot of requests, personal and professional. 

“First, acknowledge that you can’t be everywhere. You will just be average at everything…no one will get proper attention.”

When I last spoke to Heather she was running her own headhunting business in London. These days she’s the dean of Edinburgh Business School and still chairman of her business. She’s also an author, and she has a family. She says to protect her time, she says no a lot. But she does try to offer the other person something along with her refusal.

“So I’ve just come from an email from a pretty famous TV presenter in this country, who’s a woman, asking for one-on-one advice having read my book…non-executive director position…she wants my personal advice. This is an hour of my time, I will not be able to charge for it. I can’t do anything to specifically assist her because I don’t run a search company that does board positions and I don’t influence chairmen. I encourage and support women but I don’t make any difference as to whether they succeed or not. All she will hear is what’s in book all over again. I’ve written back to her and said I won’t see her. But in writing back and saying I won’t see her, I’ve written 3 suggestions of things you can do to help herself, so when you say no to something, I can’t make the bake sale but here’s what I’ll do, I’ll donate $15 towards the cake ingredients. Try and say no in a positive fashion. It’ll make you feel a lot less guilty.”

I learned from that advice and I try to do something similar if the occasion arises.

If you’re a woman who’s done well in her field, maybe you’re one of very few women in the job, you’re probably inundated with requests for your time and expertise. Here’s Nanette again.

“One of the university professors I spoke with is asked to speak all over the world…she had an elderly parent for whom she was caregiver, she couldn’t meet all the demands and requests on her time, she always had a list by the phone of all the junior faculty who could benefit tremendously from the opportunity she was being asked to do, give speeches in various places, so she would give them a leg up as she was saying no to the request.”

But another, African-American professor didn’t have the same options. She always felt like the token black woman on these panels, but…

“She didn’t say no because she felt that all the diversity she represented wouldn’t be attended to if she wasn’t there. That issues of people of color wouldn’t be attended to, issues of people of different sexual orientations wouldn’t be attended to. So she had very, very little free time.”

But here’s something to bear in mind if you’re someone who always ends up saying yes to these extra-curricular requests. Yes, they can bolster your career, but sometimes you just bolster the person or the event itself. And that’s what the requester is after—they need you to make their event look good.

There’s a story in Nanette’s book about American writer political writer Peggy Noonan.

When Noonan’s son was little she got asked to fly across the country to campaign for a female candidate at a political event. She admired the candidate, and the organizer kept saying this woman would win if Noonan showed up and spoke up for her. But Noonan was a single mother and the event was during the week – her son was at school. The woman asking her said, bring him! Noonan said no, little kids didn’t like being yanked out of school and taken half way across the country. The event organizer kept pressing her. Noonan hesitated…but ultimately she said no.

“So I think what’s really important to realize in scenarios like this is that all too often people who ask for your time for a particular function or event, they don’t care about your family or other responsibilities, they care about their needs. So it’s very important that you prioritize your own needs because nobody else will do that for you.”

That’s what Peggy Noonan did when she said no to that request. She put her son over the event because she recognized that her agenda was her son, the organizer’s agenda was the success of this rally. They were two separate agendas. Realizing that helped her make the decision.

But what about the smaller things…the workplace requests that can clog up your day? Some of you responded to a Facebook post I wrote asking about requests you found it difficult to refuse.

AM-T: “One of my respondents on Facebook talked about being asked to interview someone in another department. These smaller things that over the course of a day or a week can be little time sucks. But especially when it’s someone who is superior to you, it’s just really awkward…how to say no to those things without looking churlish?”

“Exactly, and it’s true that saying no in those kinds of situations sometimes raises concerns about not being a team player.”

And sometimes I think you have to do it – you have to put in the time to give that good impression. But not every time they ask. One listener told me on Facebook the men in her office always ask her to take notes in meetings – a common request women get. And she says yes partly because she thinks she’ll take the best notes anyway, so why not? But if it were me I’d suggest something else like, everyone takes turns taking notes in different meetings.

But of course sometimes what you want to say no to isn’t the small stuff – it’s the big stuff. And pushing back on a request from above can be fraught with complications.

AM-T: “People may be facing these kinds of situations in their office where they may be asked to do something, it’s coming from on high, yet they feel it’s the wrong action – what sorts of options do they have?”

“Well in some of those situations as in the hierarchical systems where you’re not allowed to say no to your superior, you are definitely at risk of losing your job if you draw a line that your superior is going to be very unhappy with. And it’s very important that you talk with colleagues to the extent you can, that you get support from as many people as you can, that you get as much advice as you can about how to be very clear about why you are stating the limit you are stating, and hope you can make a good case and be respected for what you are doing, but it doesn’t always work out.”

Finally, Nanette and I talked about how to say no to routine requests – or rather, how NOT to say no. She began to think about this when she was researching her book. She got rejected a bunch of times when she approached prominent women to interview – more than she expected. She came to appreciate a direct no. But much of the time, that’s not what she got.  

“It was very frustrating, because essentially I was put on indefinite hold with the vague promise they’d get back to me and they didn’t. That made me feel devalued, and ultimately lose respect for the person who couldn’t just tell it to me straight. I mean I’d rather have a nasty no or just a no, I’m not available, than just a wishy washy or indefinite-hold no.”


Nannette’s book covers so much more than settling boundaries in the workplace. She has chapters on saying no to friends and family, how to say no to requests from your community, even how to say no to someone who is dying.

If you are somebody who wants to stop saying yes so often I highly recommend it – again the book is ‘My Answer is No – if That’s OK with You. How Women Can Say No and Still Feel Good About It.’ I’ll put a link under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.