when to say no

How to Know When to Say Yes and When to Say No

9 April 2020 | by Kristina Kiefer

Which is harder for you to say: ‘Yes’ or ‘No? Like most of us, I’ve struggled life-long with people-pleasing. It’s 100% easier for me to say yes than it is to say no. 

As a people-pleasing introvert, no costs much more energy to say so it often doesn’t feel worth it in the moment. Yet, I’ve often found myself in complete energy depletion because I’ve spread myself too thin trying to fulfil all the commitments I failed to say no to. 

It turns out, it is 100% easier to follow through on a no than a yes when it comes to working. 

One realization I’ve come to is that there is an imbalance in the yesses and no’s in existence. There will always be more things to do than you have time for. And every yes you give means you are saying no to many more things. 

Why saying ‘yes’ will land you in trouble

A yes to donating to the bake sale could mean a no to getting your work-out in, taking your dog for a walk, finishing the article you wanted to read, meeting a friend for coffee, AND wrapping up that work-project you just need one more hour to finish. 

You just said five no’s for your one yes. 

A yes means significant commitment and loss of freedom, whereas a no, while emotionally and energetically costly, saves time and commitment. 

This concept that a no is not directly equal to a yes has been a challenging one for me to internalize. I’ve started visualizing one of those old-fashioned balance scales, one side of which contains my yesses, and the other gets my no’s. Successfully managing my commitments means the no side stays balanced with the yes side. 

But the trick is that my yesses are large rocks, and my no’s are pebbles. The pebbles are plentiful and cost me very little, but it takes so many more of them to balance out the one rock I threw on there, which actually has greater value. The visualization helps when I have time to muse on my skill-building, but not necessarily on the fly. 

When to say yes and when to say no

I’ve compiled a few strategies I’ve found useful for my introverted self to use if I’m unsure when to say yes and when to say no. Take a look and see if these could help you too:

1. Don’t commit to a request on the first ask

Give yourself some time and space to think about whether you really want to commit to this request. When possible, wait to respond to it for a day or two. If not possible, ask a question in return. Some of my favorites: “What is your timeline for needing this completed? I want to make sure I can actually give it the attention it deserves before deciding if I can commit.” “Tell me more about your expectations regarding this project and what my responsibilities would be if I accepted.” 

2. Review your vision and mission

Whether this is a personal vision and mission, or your business vision and mission, this can be a powerful tool in choosing your commitments. If the request does not align with your vision and mission, it shouldn’t have a right to your time! Being authentic in your work means staying on track with a focus on your values. If you have to spend a lot of time justifying how this request aligns with your values, that’s a pretty big red flag that your answer should be no. 

2. How many no’s is this yes going to cost you? 

In other words, list out what no’s you’ll be saying if you say this yes. What are you sacrificing in order to be able to follow through on this commitment? Is it worth it? If it helps, you can make a pros and cons list of saying yes versus your most costly no’s. 

3. Is this no yours to say? 

Do you actually have the option to say no? If you are an employee, it may not be your call!

However, you can use this to your advantage in some situations. One of the wisest pieces of advice I received in the academic world was to always tell someone you wanted to discuss with your advisor/mentor committee/department chair before committing to something. If you are a people pleaser like me, it’s much easier to say no when you have a supervisor who said no. 

If you are being asked by your boss, you don’t get a lot of say, however, you do have a responsibility to communicate with your employer what this yes is costing them. How many other projects will get put on the backburner if you say yes? Ask your boss to prioritize your responsibilities. It helps to have an estimate of time commitment and resource costs when you ask for direction. Your boss may choose to say no instead!  

4. Are you actually providing a service in saying yes? 

If you really struggle to say no, you are probably loaded down with so many yesses, that they all are suffering. If you’ve over-committed yourself, you might short-change the commitment so much it would simply be better to forgo completely! 

Are you going to be proud of the job you do if you say yes? If you provide a service that will fall well below what they need, it may actually cost them more to fix it or find alternative options to meet their need. 

In this case, you’ve done your reputation and their objective a disservice. If I were to switch places and be in the requestor’s shoes, would I find more value in someone honestly telling me they didn’t think they could meet my goals or someone who felt obligated to say yes but didn’t perform as desired? 

5. Where is the pressure coming from? 

This is tricky. If the pressure is coming completely from you, this is a good checks and balance signal to give yourself some time to analyze your motivation for saying yes. If the pressure is coming from without- the harder they push, the more likely I am to say no! (Unless it’s your boss- see #3). 

If they are pushy now, they are likely to be pushy in all things and compromise your other commitments. If the requestor is not placing any pressure, how urgent or important is this really? If they are respectfully asking for your participation and have a well thought out timeline and clear delineation of responsibilities, I’m more likely to consider it fully. 

6. Are you saying “OK”, instead of “YES!”? 

If you can’t answer “YES!” when you respond, and your answer is merely “OK”, this is a flag to rethink your yes. Now, paying your bills might just be an OK, yet it fits with your values and mission and knowing when to say no is going to cost you more than you want to pay, so you should probably accept this OK. However, if your answer to contributing to the bake sale is “OK”, and not “YES!”, why are you agreeing? Maybe you shouldn’t. 

Each yes or no symbolizes time and energy, which is priceless for the introvert in a business world. It is well worth your time to start budgeting your yesses and no’s accordingly!

Featured image by Roman Kraft 


  1. Jennifer Pidgen

    9th April 2020 at 6:25 PM

    As a self-employed WOB, I can completely relate to Dr. Kiefer’s insight on taking a moment to properly assess the value of saying no, before immediately jumping to a YES response. This is as applicable to extroverts as it is to introverts as it’s quite easy to quickly see one’s productive time eaten up by a “yes” that wasn’t well thought through. Taking the time to really evaluate whether or not the request fits into the company’s vision and mission is a VITAL step.

    Awesome article. Thank you for the words.

    • Kristina Kiefer

      10th April 2020 at 10:22 PM

      So glad and honored to hear it was useful to you, and fantastic insight on how broadly the topic applies! Thank you for being a powerful leader for women to look to!

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