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Have you ever said yes to something and then regretted it? If so, you’re normal. Saying no is difficult, but being able to say no is essential in creating the capacity to say yes to, and to be successful at, what is truly important.

I’ve been working with a particular client in the growing engineering business for about 6 months now. The company’s owners started small in 2008, and today have built the company into a successful £4+ million business with around 70 employees. But it wasn’t without some bumps along the way.

In the early days, they were taking every order that came their way. It was always about finding a way to get to yes—and in those early days, doing so was critical to their survival. They had invested in very expensive CNC machinery, and were capable of taking on large projects. But their ability to achieve growth had flatlined. And they were stuck.

One of the early issues we recognized that was holding them back and causing frustrations was that they were still saying yes to everything that came their way. It was a habit based on what allowed them to survive when they were a startup. When we started to look at the kind of work that was a good fit for the business as it stands today, they began to recognise that much of the work they were saying yes to included jobs that were too small to efficiently utilize their newer machines that took time to set up. What was a fit for them in startup mode was no longer a fit.

The end result was that by saying yes to the small projects they had survived on in the early days, but which now created inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and frustrations, they were essentially saying no to doing more of the kind of work that was a right fit for them in their current stage. When they began to say no to the smaller orders that didn’t fit, they created more capacity to go after the longer run jobs that did. They became more efficient, more profitable, and their growth rate accelerated quickly.

Why Is “No” So Difficult?

There are two primary reasons that we find it difficult to say no. It requires deliberate courage and it creates awkwardness. 

Deliberate Courage

We often say yes to things in an effort to avoid conflict, avoid disappointing others, or to give in to pressure. It takes a clear understanding of what is important and why in order to develop the clarity to know when to say no. With clarity and focus on the important things you will have to say no to by saying yes in the moment to something minor, the courage to say no to the trivial, or less than important, becomes easier to find.

Social Awkwardness

We have a natural tendency as humans to conform to what people expect of us. Psychologists refer to this as normative conformityWe all have the same 24 hours in a day, and it is up to us to determine how we choose to allocate them. Have you ever been invited to something by a group of peers and said yes, even though it forced you to give up something of more value that you needed to do? Have you been asked to do something by a boss or colleague even though you did not have the capacity to do it without dropping something else?

Saying no actually brings us physical and emotional discomfort in these situations. What we have to pause and remember before answering these requests is whether to politely say no, and regret it for a moment, or begrudgingly say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or years.

I hope that helps you learn to say no so you can say yes.