Say No to Say Yes, Part 2: Getting to No

by Shana Montesol Johnson

In my graduate school Conflict Negotiation class, our go-to text was the classic “Getting to Yes” by Fisher and Ury. Its principles have helped me since then in navigating conflict in both professional and personal contexts. However, as a career coach, I am now more interested in “Getting to No.”

In last week’s blog post, I wrote about saying No to say Yes – if we turn down certain opportunities that are good but not great, we can make space for the stuff that we really, really want. Yet many of us never get to No.

Fears often keep us from saying No. Here are a few fears – which one(s) do you identify with?

  • I’m afraid this opportunity is as good as it’s gonna get – I may not have a chance to say Yes to what I really want
  • If I turn down this opportunity, I may not get asked again
  • I don’t want to disappoint anyone or give them reason to dislike me
  • I don’t want to seem like I think I’m too good for their offer
  • I’m so flattered that someone wants me to do this, how can I turn them down?

There is a grain of truth in each of these worries – which is what gives them so much power. But there is also a flip side to each:

  • If I take this opportunity, I may not be free later to say Yes to that truly great offer that comes along
  • If I don’t turn down this opportunity, I may not get to do what I really want
  • If I say No, I may disappoint someone. But if I say Yes to this opportunity, will I end up disappointing myself?
  • It’s not that I think I’m too good for their offer; how can I communicate that I’m not the best fit for their offer?
  • I’m so flattered that someone wants me to do this, what are some ways I can enjoy the vote of confidence, and use it to propel me toward my true goals?

There is risk involved in saying No. There is security, predictability, stability in staying with the job we’re good at but don’t love, or the project that’s successful but isn’t making a difference in the area we’re passionate about, or the gig that’s well-paying but soul-sucking.

There is also often a wait involved in saying No. We wish that the moment we say No, our dream opportunity will fall into our lap and we can immediately say Yes to it. This does not usually happen. We’re left to wait and wonder, “Did I do the right thing?”

I have seen coaching clients make tough trade-offs and say No to comfortable, good, even lucrative opportunities in order to make space for what they really wanted. In each case, what enabled each of them to take the leap was being clear on their values, goals, and priorities. Through the coaching process, they came to know what they wanted to say Yes to. And they weren’t merely wishing for it – they developed a plan to make that Yes a reality. Which included saying No to something else.

In my own professional life, this year I have said No to some interesting consulting assignments in order to create the space to do the work I am passionate about: coaching people to help them have  jobs that they love, that make an impact on the world, and that enable them to have a life outside of work. And I’m happy to report that although it hasn’t been easy to say No, so far, I haven’t regretted it.

How about you? What do you need to say No to? What keeps you from getting to No?

Photo courtesy of zirconicusso /



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