How to Say No

How to Say NoThe prospect of answering a simple yes-or-no question becomes a lot more complex when you add compassion, guilt, accountability, fear, and self-discipline into the mix. Workplace requests can generate feelings of personal accountability in women. However, you could end up overcommitting or even burning out when you don’t say “no” in situations you know you should.

Last week, I hosted the 17th Virtual Meeting of the Aite-Novarica Women’s Network on the topic of how to say no. Our panelists, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company VP Erin Selfe, Society Insurance Director Cheryl Starling, WCF CIO Debi Mofford, and F&G COO Bonnie Wasgatt, shared their thoughts on how to say no. I’ve included some highlights from our conversation below:

Formulate a strong sense of your priorities in advance to avoid unwanted outcomes.

Women can struggle with feeling empowered to say no to requests that feel like commands. Women in leadership roles may find it difficult to say no to things they are passionate about or where they feel they could make a difference. Women at all levels can encounter setbacks to setting firm boundaries when faced with negative reactions, situations that elicit guilt, or pressure to fit into a majority-male environment.

It’s a good idea to be judicious when deciding whether to say yes or no to a request. Listen to your gut instinct, and don’t be pressured to accept on the spot. Decide how much time you’re willing to commit to a project before you walk into a meeting.

Panelists’ strategies for saying no included suggesting alternative solutions and being candid about why they’re declining. One panelist suggested the “bake-sale no” as a way to split the difference. If you offer an alternative, such as directing the person to online resources or walking them through the steps you would take, you’re still providing help, just not the quantity of time and effort originally requested: “I bought the dough and I baked them!”

Emotional intelligence strategies can help preserve and strengthen interpersonal relationships.

An audience member asked, “Do you think it’s always necessary to explain why you’re saying no?” All four panelists agreed that it is more important to explain the reasons behind your decision when you have a personal relationship with the asker. While it’s easy to say no to a stranger, work or personal relationships can pose a variety of challenges.

One panelist related a story of being asked to do something in a public meeting without advance notice and facing pressure to say yes in front of a group. She exited that situation by expressing appreciation for being asked and suggesting that she and the asker pick up the discussion later. Another panelist shared that she struggles to say no to her daughter, because she wants to encourage her to ask for help more often. It can also be difficult to say no to your boss or colleagues at any level who appear to be struggling.

Using emotional intelligence strategies can help your “no” go down smoothly. Be attentive to body language as well as the substance of what’s said, and review written messages to ensure they don’t come across differently than intended.

The next Aite-Novarica Women’s Network Virtual Meeting will take place on September 29, 2021 at 11 AM ET on the topic of “Business Planning at Its Best.” Speakers include Aite-Novarica’s Head of the Property/Casualty Executive Partner Service, Martina Conlon. More information is available at

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