The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 58: The Art and Importance of Saying No

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The word priority was a singular word when it first came into the world in the 1400s… it meant “the prior” thing… or the one thing that is prior to all others. This is important to realize, because once this is clear, we have the ability to say “no” to things that conflict with our top priority.

The truth is that there can only be one thing in your life that is more important than any other… 

Yet, at some point, the word priority became plural into “priorities”, which reflects the change that many of us have had in our thoughts.  That we can accommodate multiple things in our life that are all important.  The idea of whittling down a list to even the top 3 or 4 most important things to us seems hard for many.

Everything in life has trade offs. Unfortunately, most of us don’t realize that this is happening, and so these trade offs happen unintentionally.  We say “yes” to all sorts of things, and don’t realize that this means we are saying “no” to many others.  

…but what if we could flip this script?  What if instead of unintentionally saying “no” to things that matter to us, we very intentionally said “no” to things that don’t so that we could create the time and space we need for what matters most?

Before we get to that we need to first discuss why it is so hard for many of us to say “no” in the first place.  

The Awkwardness of Saying “No”

For many of us the reason that we hate saying “no” to other people is because of the feeling that it often produces.  And – as we have discussed before on The Physician Philosopher – our feelings drive everything we do.

This is called the motivational triad. Briefly, the idea is that every decision we make in life is to seek pleasure or avoid some kind of pain – and to do either of these things as efficiently as possible.

So, when it comes to denying someone else’s request, the reason that this seems so hard is because we are afraid of how awkward it might feel when we don’t oblige.

The trade off, however, is the regret we have later – and that we know is coming – because we have now committed to something that isn’t particularly important to us.  That we don’t really like doing.  Or – worst – that takes time away from other priorities in our life.  

The Stories We Create About Saying No

A second and equally important aspect of declining someone’s request is the stories we create about what the other person will think or feel when we make it clear their request isn’t in line with our priorities.

Some of the thoughts that will come up with our clients in ACE when this happens, include… “It is the department chair?  What if I upset them?”  Or… “this is going to make it harder for them.”

The truth is that you cannot determine how someone else will feel.  And it may not actually be a big deal to them at all, and even if it is, you cannot determine how someone will feel.  That is up to them.

The Worst Thing is Just a Negative Feeling

The work to be done here isn’t to avoid these conversations so that we don’t ever feel awkward or worry about disappointing other people.  The real work to be done is to realize that feeling a negative feeling isn’t the worst thing in the world.

It is just a negative feeling.  And we know that many of the best experiences we have ever had were the result of a negative feeling.

Think about it.  How many times in your life were your nervous or anxious before a big event only to later look back and realize these were some of the greatest moments of your life.  

Think about your wedding or your child’s birth or that business you decided to start.  What about that big interview that got you into medical school or residency?  Or that one public speech that led to another great opportunity?

Life teaches us over and over again that sometimes we need to go through negative feelings in order to get to the positive feelings we seek. And, in fact, the negative feelings are required to really even be able to appreciate the positive feelings we have in life like joy, contentment, happiness, or fulfillment.  

The Trade Off for Awkwardness

When we learn the skill of dealing with the awkwardness that comes after we tell someone “no”… it really unleashes a super power that many of us didn’t know exists.

The reason is that we have traded awkwardness and perceived popularity when we say “yes” for the respect we receive when we say “no”.  

Think about it… when someone tells you that they cannot commit to something because it is not currently a priority for them, you may get annoyed with them initially.  Yet, after that fades, what you’ll find is respect.  In fact, it often produces a thought “Wow, I wish I was that clear on my priorities”.

I mean, do we really not respect people who prioritize their family or who are extremely clear on what matters most to them at work?  

The truth is that we respect people who are clear on their priorities.

So, if you can learn to accept the awkwardness of “no,” what you will find remains long-term respect.

The Hell Yes Policy is Really a Hell No Policy

In the Alpha Coaching Experience, we talk a lot about what makes people’s Hell Yes Policy.  And we have mentioned it here on The Physician Philosopher as well.

Yet, I find that when most people here about this, they only focus on one half of The Hell Yes Policy, which is to determine what they should be saying “Yes” to in their life.

Yet, the true power comes in the art of saying “no”.  

One way to think about this is to come up with a NOT To-Do list.  

So, instead of focusing on all the things we feel we must do, we work on trimming our to-do list item by item until all that is left is what truly matters to us.  What makes your HYP.

For example, what often makes my NOT To-do list are things like:

  • Checking my email every day.
  • Going to committees or meetings that do not require me to be there.
  • Accepting public speaking opportunities that won’t be given to my target audience, aren’t worth my time monetarily, or aren’t on a topic that is in my wheelhouse (i.e. if the talk isn’t on helping doctors create a life they love through money or mindset coaching).  

The Art of Saying No

Yet, this conversation wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t talk about the art of saying no, because it is an art.

Here are some helpful ways to say “no” that get your point across while giving you the best chance to keep a relationship intact.

The Humble No

The first one – and my favorite – is the Humble No.  It goes something like this, 

“Thank you for thinking of me. I am humbled that you would ask, but if I say ‘yes’ to that right now, I’ll have to say no to these other two things, which are of higher priority to me right now.”

The Pause… No 

Another great way to decline an offer is to simply pause.  Based on our prior point that most people are not willing to feel awkward, you can use this to your advantage.  When someone makes a request on your time, simply pause – perhaps count to 5 in your head – and wait for the other person to fill in the gap.  

What usually happens in this situation is that they provide you an out.  They’ll say something like, “I mean I know you have a lot going on right now. So, if you can’t commit right now I understand.”

Simple, Yet Effective No  

A third and equally effective way to make your priorities clear is to simply say “no”.  This can be in any number of ways, including:

  • No.
  • I cannot commit to that right now.
  • Nope.
  • Thanks, but no.  

The Negotiation No

In the Alpha Coaching Experience, we have a bunch of clients who end up getting coached on contract negotiations… and one of the skills we talk about in this context is the art of asking pointed questions.

Instead of using the other ways of saying “no”  – which can shut down a negotiation – you can simply point out the problem if you say “yes” to the request.

For example, if your chair asks you to chair a new committee for which you have no interest you might say, “If I say yes to that, which of these other three projects would you like me to stop participating in?”

What you are doing here is essentially pointing out the problem this creates and then letting the other person come to the realization that you are already doing many things that are important to their mission.  

Getting Clear on Priorities

In the end, you’ll need to learn how to fashion your own responses to declining other people’s requests.  Yet, the fundamental truth of the process remains… If you don’t clearly define your priorities, someone else will.  

This is why learning how to say “no” is just as important as determining what we truly want to say “Yes” to in our life.  

This week why not spend some time determining what is most important to you and then adamantly and unapologetically defending those things through the art of saying no?

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1 Comment

  1. steveark

    This topic always causes me mixed emotions. I agree priorities must come first but so many times in my life I had opportunities that weren’t obviously linked to my priorities and that I did not want to do, yet when I did them they created growth and new opportunities. I was a very shy teen but somehow gathered the courage to say yes to being the lead in a large production, and I found out I could act, and was a natural at it. I hated public speaking until I forced myself to say yes and now its fun and very natural. I did not feel like a leader until I accepted jobs that put me in charge of hundreds of people, and now any board I get on seems to elect me chair. I guess my question is how do you know, early in life, which opportunities will lead to fulfilling your priorities? I adopted a say yes to everything attitude, because it seemed like everything I said yes to became an opportunity to grow much more than it appeared. Because of that and because I have ample time I still tend to say yes because its been such a big part of my success.


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