When You can’t Say No. Or Yes.

I’m terrible at saying no!

The refrain is so common that I hear it in my sleep.. 

Usually, when clients feel overloaded that is their self-diagnosis. There are too many projects, deadlines, and tasks. So, they haven’t seen their family, been to the gym, or done anything except work in weeks. Clearly, they don’t say no enough.

On the surface, this sounds like something to do with personality. Maybe they are a “people pleaser” as pop psychology calls it. Are they the kind of person who simply likes to be agreeable? Maybe. Most of us don’t like conflict very much.

When someone asks us to do something, we feel a sense of obligation.  The relationship in the background lays the groundwork for that sense of duty. Whether it’s our boss, a colleague or lover, the obligation seems baked in. So, we say yes to keep the keep them happy. That’s the people-pleasing explanation.

But like many explanatory principles, the people-pleasing model doesn’t tell us how to change anything. Either we continue to say yes to everything and give up sleep or eating; or we become more “assertive” and say no. Of course, saying no comes with unpleasant consequences. Our peers, spouse and children will end up disgruntled by our uncooperativeness.

Yes or No Is Not Enough

Yet, it is our own minds that have narrowed the options to only two. Yes or no. That’s a terrible set of alternatives.

If we found ourselves in a similar circumstance while arranging a golf game, we wouldn’t see the options as binary. If your buddy Mel asks if you want to play golf on Sunday at 8 AM, you might say something like “I’d love to, but I’m not available until 10 AM”. And then Mel says, “Ok, let’s do it at 10”. Or, he says, “10 doesn’t work for me on Sunday, but how does Saturday look for you?”

What’s happening here? A negotiation. You and Mel are triangulating the path to both of you getting to the goal—without anyone sacrificing something.


We have a limited notion of negotiation. We imagine negotiating at a flea market, while buying a house, making a job offer, or getting divorced. And indeed, those are all scenarios in which we do negotiate.

But commercial transactions are a small subset of the negotiations we undertake.
Negotiation is everywhere.  Many of us start our days negotiating. We hear the alarm and reach over to hit the snooze button.  The clock requests we wake up now, we say “Sure. But in 15 minutes”.

Request. Counter-offer.

Unaware Means Unprepared

Because we haven’t distinguished most interactions as negotiations, we don’t negotiate.  This happens especially when people make requests of us. Outside of the context of negotiating, there really are only two options: Accepting or declining.

Since most of us don’t like to be “difficult” we do what feels least confronting. We say yes. That would be fine if we had the kinds of lives in which saying yes didn’t put some other commitment into danger. But in reality, every new request we accept puts some other commitment in peril.

By over-committing to requests we create competition for our attention and time. Eventually, a trade-off seems inevitable. But, we try to avoid making a trade-off by striving to do everything we agreed to. We end up overbooked, over-scheduled and overworked.


Let’s be honest, there are requests, and there are REQUESTS. That second category are sort of like the “invitation” that your mother gives you to come to Christmas dinner. You know it’s not a real invitation because declining it is not an option.

At work, the REQUESTS could come from your boss, or the Board of Directors, the CFO, or someone else who has authority. They don’t seem like requests—they seem like orders.

But both the REQUESTS from the CEO and Mom’s emphatic “request -cum- invitation” are not orders. They are requests, and they have the latitude for negotiation. I often counter-offered when Mom invited me to a holiday dinner. She asked me to come the night before and then cook all day. I would offer to bake pies at home and bring them at noon on the day. She always accepted that counter-offer.

When we reframe requests as opening salvos in a negotiation, things change. Suddenly there are multiple ways to respond.

Those options are all varying degrees of yes. Why? Because many requests are not really requests but tacit commands (see “Mom” above). So, let’s assume that NO isn’t an option, since that is how it feels.

Yes, Plus 

Yes has lots of possible variations. And that’s where you start in a negotiation.

You offer yes, but with a change. For example, it may be a change in scope, timeline, detail or even owner.

Imagine the CEO tells you (as head Engineer) to add a function to the product and launch in 2 weeks. But your team is at capacity.

The counter-offer could be one of these (or any of innumerable others):

  • OK. That will be ready Thursday and I’ll reschedule the other feature from last week.
  • OK. To complete that on time I will engage our consultant for 4 hours.
  • OK.  I can get this done, and finish the bug fix in 4 weeks instead of next week –or the reverse. Which do you prefer?

The key point is that you are negotiating.

One counter-offer won’t be the end. It may go through iterations –just like you and Mel scheduling golf. You may need tools to make your case, or ways of presenting the options or reducing the scope.

But knowing you are negotiating does the most important thing –it multiplies the alternatives. And more alternatives can provide the means to fulfill all of you commitments –while still eating, sleeping and feeling some sense of personal autonomy.

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