Gracesters, this one’s for you.

What happens when you imagine saying ‘no’ to someone? Does your chest tighten or your stomach knot up? Do emotions arise? Anxiety, perhaps, or even panic? How do you react mentally? Maybe you get fuzzy-headed or think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

Now recall a recent time when you actually did decline a request. How directly did you communicate your ‘no’? As its own complete sentence, or buried in apologies, tangents or justifications?

There are intense pressures on women at work – even those in leadership positions – to be agreeable, helpful, and ever-available. “No” flies in the face of those expectations. It can be an especially uncomfortable stance for grace-based women leaders, because it risks creating disruption in the relationship. But as a professor of mine once said, “If you can’t say ‘no,’ then your ‘yes’ doesn’t mean much.”

Despite the discomfort it can create within you, there is great and positive power in a clear, unvarnished and respectful decline. It can help you make more realistic commitments, stand up for your values and earn others’ respect. But “No” doesn’t help just you: it contributes also to the health of your team, organization, family or community.

So the question becomes how to bring your unapologetic “no” forward in a way that works? As you know, it’s not an easy question, but here are some ways to start engaging it.

1. Examine your own history with saying “No” and the internal beliefs you carry as a result. If you’re like many women, you have inherited a tangled set of messages about your power and authority. Try to look at that inheritance, taking stock of your history and its impact on your stance toward boundary-setting. Then try to articulate your own present-day views and values about saying “no,” so that you’re operating from a perspective that feels current and supportive. While a new articulation won’t erase your inherited stories, a new mental model can open up the possibility for new patterns of action.

2. Experiment! There are a million ways to deliver a ‘no:’ sweetly, acerbically, forcefully, passively, fearfully, bitchily, authoritatively, quietly, unshakably, tentatively… Play with them all by taking just a few minutes a day by yourself just to experiment with throwing different versions of “no” into the air. See how each one makes you feel. See if you can identify ways of saying it that feel comfortably powerful to you.

Step it up a notch by taking the ‘no’ experiment into low-stakes interactions, like at the grocery store or with your family (if you have that kind of family!). Try saying ‘no’ in places where doing it unskillfully won’t have big negative consequences. The goal is to get more practice and thus get more comfortable with claiming your own authority in all situations.

3. Examine your organization’s culture. I often hear people throwing around cultural generalizations like, “Oh, women can’t do X.” Or, “Women get killed for doing Y.” Certainly, it’s smart to listen to that cultural lore, because it may carry some career-saving wisdom. But test it, too. Look for current, tangible examples of what actually works and doesn’t in your workplace today. Are some women successful at managing boundaries, while others are not? What seems to separate the respected ‘no-sayers’ from those who are seen as aggressive or bitchy?

4. Consider investing in development. I think that each woman’s relationship to “No” is an integral part of her journey to fullness, authority and well-being. Here are a few ideas for development:

  • Read books or take a course. Relevant topics might include assertiveness, conflict management, emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, or executive presence. I recommend more experiential courses over strictly theoretical ones, so that you’re testing concepts by putting them into practice. In this regard, I am a big fan of Joe Weston’s book and workshops on “respectful confrontation.” http://www.respectfulconfrontation.com
  • Set up an agreement with a “no-buddy,” where you support each other in staking your claim and setting boundaries at work and in your personal lives.
  • If you want to take this on more fully, consider investing in an executive coach for customized support. If confrontation and boundary-setting have difficult historical and emotional roots, consider seeking the support of a therapist.

What about you?

How do you react inside, the closer you get to using “No” as a complete sentence, without padding or softening it?

What do you see as the promises and perils of saying “No” so directly?

When have you said “no” in a way that was both definitive (grit) and respectful (grace)? What did you learn from that?