(Don’t) Just Say No

Strategic word choice can help you draw boundaries and avoid burnout.

As children, we are admonished for saying “no.” Perhaps this is what sets the pattern for many of us later in life of saying “yes” to everything thrown our way. In the workplace this can translate to being too busy, exhausted and burned out to say “yes” to the fun and important activities we want to do outside of work.

Learning to say “no” is a difficult, but not impossible habit to develop. The good news for those of us who feel guilty or riddled with anxiety over the thought of saying “no” is that not only can you give a “no” without ever actually saying the word, but there is an even more effective word choice. Researchers at Boston College and the University of Houston discovered in a 2013 study that saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” or even “no,” is a useful strategy for achieving success.

Dr. Heidi Grant, social psychologist, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School and senior scientist for the Neuroleadership Institute, writes on her blog, “… even seemingly subtle differences in language can have very powerful effects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. ‘I don’t’ is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower.”

This simple change in wording can help you better manage your time and workload, freeing you up to focus on the tasks that will put you closer to achieving long-term projects, career and life goals. The key is enacting a few tried-and-true steps and practicing the “I don’t” strategy until it becomes second nature, so you can use it in business without burning bridges.

Over the past few years, in my own quest to learn to say no, I’ve developed the acronym AHAH: Assessment, Honesty, Acknowledgement and Help. I consider the request and assess whether it’s something I find exciting and engaging, as well as asking myself if there is time on my plate to do it. I may also inquire as to the scope of the project and the timeline. Next, I will respond with diplomatic honesty and say something like, “Thank you for thinking of me for this project. It really sounds exciting, but I simply don’t have space for it in my schedule at this time.” It’s important at this stage to listen to and acknowledge feedback or pushback from the other party.

Finally, offer another form of help by recommending another person who might be a good fit or some other solution. This could even come in the form of a yes, but only if they can wait for it until after you come up for air from a current project.  

Being firm with your “don’t” and providing another option is a good way to maintain your boundaries, while at the same time not seeming uncooperative. There will of course be times when a request comes from your superior and even the most strategic word choice isn’t going to save you from the task at hand. For the other times, however, perfect the art of the “I don’t.”


Top Priorities

Warren Buffett’s advice for setting boundaries and saying no

We could all likely do better to take a page from the playbook of one of the most wealthy and successful business people in the world, Warren Buffett. One of many quotes attributed to the ever-quotable Buffett is, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” In an oft-repeated story, Buffett is said to have told his long-term pilot this two-step rule to setting boundaries and saying no:

• Write down 25 career goals and circle the five most important.

• Eliminate the other 20 goals.

This takes keeping it simple to a whole new level.

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to


Categories: Biz Etiquette, The Magazine