Why saying no is important

A lot of bad things can happen when you lack the ability to say no at the appropriate times: personal dissatisfaction as you try to fit too much activity into too little time, unhappy members of your firm as living up to commitments becomes more difficult and aggravated clients — or whomever else you have made promises to. Saying yes to too many perceived opportunities is counterproductive and makes it much more difficult to achieve personal success, said Tom Grella, past chair of the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, in a recent edition of Law Practice magazine.

“Saying no at the right times is a skill,” wrote Grella, a managing shareholder at McGuire, Wood & Bissette PA, in Asheville, N.C. “Most of us are not lazy and are very interested in making significant contributions for the betterment of others.”

If you struggle to say no to others, consider these benefits of being able to say no that Grella outlines.

  • Helps you to be really good at what you do say yes to.
    If you limit saying yes to those things for which you have a true passion, as well as activities that make use of your natural strengths, you will have greater energy for the roles you agree to take on. The more energy you expend on those things that you truly want to be committed to, the more you will be productive, innovative and successful in those things.

  • Facilitates your ability to live up to the commitments that you make to others.
    Those who can’t say no have less time, on average, to devote to a greater number of activities. “Though some of us believe that we are efficient with our time — that is, that we are great at ‘time management’ — the reality is that you really do have to spend time on your commitments in order to achieve maximum success,” Grella said. Some say they achieve success spending “quality” time versus quantity of time. Some of us “maximize limited time better than others,” but “you will have a greater likelihood of success in your commitments if you are able to devote more time to fewer endeavors,” Grella said.

  • Enables you to say yes to the best opportunities that arise. Every one of us at some point will convey “no” to others. In many cases, we do this by sending signals that we are overcommitted or overstretched. You may not verbally say no, but because of these signals, you may not be asked. Having the ability to say no will allow you to say yes to opportunities — and enable you to seek out these types of important activities as well.

  • Allows you to live a healthier and more satisfactory life.
    Having the ability and discipline to say no when that is the proper response and thereby having the freedom to say yes to those opportunities within your strengths, passions, gifts and talents is a quality-of-life skill. It is logical that those who have this skill will have greater satisfaction and more time to live a healthy, satisfied life.

Understanding that many of us still give in to saying yes too often, consider asking yourself two questions when perceived opportunities come along, Grella said.

First, if I say yes, will I be doing so for the right reasons or motives?

Many of us are afraid to say no because we think that “doing so will cause us to miss an opportunity, or perhaps it will be offered to someone else,” he said. “We also may be afraid that saying no will cause others to not come back to you and ask you again when another opportunity for service comes along.”

The answer to this type of thinking is to have a personal development plan for yourself, according to Grella. When it comes to responding to service opportunities, the plan should include a detailed understanding of those areas of service or work that are critical to your future. You should have a clear idea of what narrow scope of service is always “yes.” Also, have an understanding that “no” does not simply mean “no.” Those who present opportunities are usually the same people who will have future opportunities to present or have influence over those who do.

Second, ask yourself: How will saying yes affect my obligations to others? “Although you should not be afraid of missing out on future opportunities by saying no, you should be afraid of missing future opportunities for saying yes and stretching yourself so thin that you cannot follow through on existing commitments,” Grella said.

Law Practice magazine is a publication of the ABA Law Practice Division.