How to say 'no', so you can say 'yes'

When stress, worry and caring for others has drained us to the point where we can no longer muster the strength to feel much of anything for anyone, it’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’ The term is usually applied to health care workers and caregivers, but lately, it’s being used to describe what many of us are feeling as we make our way through the umpteenth year of the personal pan pizza. Panorama? Pipeline? I’ll do anything to avoid typing ‘pandemic’ again.

People everywhere are feeling the emotional, psychological and physical toll of worrying about – and in some cases managing -- the health and wellness of family, friends and even colleagues. Mental health experts recommend self-care, including setting boundaries with others and creating time to decompress and recharge. But not everyone knows how to express what they need.


So here are three common scenarios paired with immediately implementable ways to say ‘no’ confidently so you can say ‘yes’ to what will fulfill you.


1. Setting boundaries around face-to-face engagements.


If you don’t feel up to real-time contact – or you’re weary of leaving your home – you can say ‘no’ to meeting up for casual coffee chats or worse, ‘brain-picking’ sessions. Say, “I’m not available for that type of engagement right now. I’m trying to stay focused on my current project (or trying to make more time to spend with my family or whatever it is you’d prefer to do). Check back with me in a couple of weeks.” If you have no intention of scheduling a different time, leave off the last line.


If it’s someone you care about and want to spend time with inviting you to an event you don’t want to attend – like their niece’s baby shower – you can say, “This one is not for me,” and propose one-on-one time with that person some other day. “Why don’t the two of us do happy hour over video chat after work next Tuesday?”


Being clear and direct about your intentions helps align expectations and frees up everyone mentally and emotionally.

2. Addressing unproductive (and exhausting) work video calls.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with meetings. They can be very useful for exchanging ideas in real time and getting to know coworkers, but they also can be held solely for ceremonious reasons and filled with meaningless chitchat. They also can be especially draining in these days of WFH and video calls.

Taking back your time from these meetings will give you more space to focus on what you want to prioritize. Say, “I don’t have anything urgent to discuss today. Do you have anything pressing? We can likely save these 30 minutes for everyone.”


Speaking up can be a bit trickier if your boss is the organizer. Tread lightly and say, “I realized we are spending X hours in regular meetings every week,” and ask, “Do you think that’s serving us well?” You can offer your personal perspective: “Personally, I would be able to get more done if we cut down on meeting time.” You also can offer an alternative: “I think the team might be able to get X project done a lot quicker if we started a new group Slack chat about X instead.” Your team members might thank you for it.

3. Curb unexpected emotional dumping.


The pandemic has caused a lot of change and loss, and probably everyone in your life is dealing with some issue. If they are coming to you to solve their problem, vent or worse, emotional dumping, this can gobble up time and exhaust you with no end in sight. The go-to these days is to ignore or ghost the person, but the more mature and helpful response for everyone involved is to address it directly. If it’s someone you care about, schedule a specific time with them to discuss the issue. Say, “Hey, I’m actually really busy right now. Can you give me a call Wednesday at 8 p.m.?” You are indicating to them that you are invested, but you can’t tend to them this moment.


If you are not the right person to help them solve the problem, be direct. “Hey, I don’t think I am the right person to help you with this.” If you want to help this person, you can offer direction as to who the right person or what the right resource might be. Say, “I am not the right person to help you solve this problem, but I believe so-and-so is,” or “I think this program will help you.” That way, you help focus their energy (and yours) where it’s most helpful.

Saying ‘no’ is important. It helps clarify and simplify your life and gives you space to prioritize self-care. It also means you have more opportunities to say ‘yes’ to the people and events that are going to help you recharge. Especially in prolonged tough times, it can be lifesaving to allot the reserves you have for what matters to you most.