How to say "no" without feeling guilty.

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Sat in a motorway service station, gripping a polystyrene cup of too-hot coffee, I waited for my boss to react. It was 2007.

I’d just been offered a well-paid gig in central London, managing the marketing for the UK's regulatory body for engineers. It was my big break. An opportunity to escape the suburban sprawl of a hometown in which I’d banked 20+ years of my life. A chance to experience what it was to live in the most populous city in the country. My turn to enjoy cloistered lunches with university friends beside St. Paul’s Cathedral, shop the Portobello Road Market on sunny Saturdays after brunch, or bar-hop through Clapham on a weeknight.

“I don’t think you should take it.” He finally responded, shaking his trademark mop of curls. “There are bigger and better things on the horizon for you, and I think you should wait.”

He looked me right in the eye.

“Besides, they’re not offering you enough.”

I exhaled. He was confirming what I already suspected. That I should say “no”. That I should turn the job down. And that I should wait for something better to come along—however long that took.

That something came sooner than expected.

Within 3 months, an email landed in my inbox that changed the trajectory of my entire life.

The marketing manager for the company's North American subsidiary had handed in her 2 weeks' notice. There was an opening for me, if I wanted it. I decided I did. And within 9 months, I remember watching the ocean rush up underneath me as my flight nosed down towards the runway at Boston Logan—3,000 miles away from everything and everyone I'd ever known—and thinking, "This is it."

My chance to leap. To plant roots somewhere new.

I was supposed to stay for a year.

That was 7 years ago.

2 years ago, I left to launch my own copywriting business. I’m a block away from the ocean and what feels like a hundred years older than the girl who clutched the steering wheel so hard down I-95 that her fingers hurt. (That was my first time driving on the right side of the road. Thankfully, it wasn’t my last.)

The way things worked out always makes me think of that Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Two Sliding Doors, in which one tiny moment changes how everything plays out. (Well, almost everything—she still ends up falling for the same guy in the end.) And I can’t help but feel as though it underlines the fact that:

Every time we say “no”, we open the door for something even better to come in.

Recently, in my business, I hit a wall.

Overwhelmed, overextended, and underpaid, I knew that something had to give. But what?

The answer was simpler than I thought. But it took a talented web-designer friend of mine to spell it out.

I’d been saying “yes” too much. 

I had to say “no” more.

A lot more, in fact.

I’d conducted multiple interviews with various media outlets, written guest post after guest post, said “yes” to every client who came my way (regardless of whether or not they were a good fit), and I was burning out fast.

But as soon as I started turning down those opportunities that were not in direct alignment with the direction in which I wanted to grow, I cleared space for more of what was.

That’s not to say it was easy, at first.

No is a powerful word. Used in the wrong way, it has the ability to hurt or offend. But it also has the ability to leave you feeling freer, happier, and more in tune with yourself than ever before.

Leadership and business communication consultant Kelly Sheets once told me that the key to efficient communication is to:

1. Be direct (be clear about what you want. Is this a yes or is it a no?)

2. Be transparent (how does this request make you feel in your body?)

3. Be kind (how can you let them down . . . gently?)

Beyond that, I hashed out some general rules that I could use each time I had to tell someone "no":

 

1. Start by saying "thank you."

“Thank you for taking the time to reach out.”

“Thank you for thinking of me.”

“Thank you for asking that question.”

 

2. Throw in a compliment.

“Your event sounds awesome!”

“I wish I had the guts to put together something like that."

“The world needs more people like you, that's for sure.”

 

3. Say "no", firmly.

“I wish I could, but I can’t.”

“Unfortunately, I’m going to have to pass.”

“I’ve got to say "no", this time round.”

 

4. Explain why.

“One of my biggest weaknesses in life is that I say “yes” too much.”

“I’m taking a strategic breather from interviews until the Summertime.”

“I’ve had a busy week, and I'm craving some R&R."

 

5. Offer something of value.

“I'd love to refer you to ________ who I have a TON of respect for and who I'm confident you'll adore."

“Since you asked that question, you may enjoy this: It’s a handy guide to __________.”

"How about we do dinner next month instead?"

 

Saying "no" equals freedom. Space. Ease. Flow. And the chance to focus your energies where they’re needed most—WITHOUT feeling guilty about it. 

As my old boss used to say, "Try it. You might like it."

Tell me: Where will YOU be saying “no” more, in future?

Fed up of online marketing that lacks soul, artistry, and compassion? Nikki Groom is, too. As founder and Chief Copywriter at The F Factor (“F” stands for “Female”) Nikki writes websites for women business owners who long to connect with their customers in a way that's real and compelling and ultimately memorable. You can reach Nikki at http://www.nikkigroom.com.