Learning to say no is tough. It can mean you’ll be seen as not a team player, as not wanting to do “what’s right for kids” (my favorite education guilt trip), or as not being “one of the guys” (always an odd one for the many women in education).
Several years ago, my principal asked me to be the school assessment coordinator, in addition to my other duties as instructional coach and reading specialist. Instead of thinking it through and learning more about the position, I said yes. In truth, I was flattered that he saw leadership qualities in me that I perhaps didn’t see.
It was a huge undertaking, and I was both unprepared and uninterested. After a few months of administering the tests, I knew I wasn’t a good fit for the position. So one day I walked into my principal’s office to explain my frustration and promptly started crying, almost curling up into the fetal position. While I’m not proud of the way I handled the situation, I did learn from it.
Now I’m more apt to ask questions, to ask for more reflective time, or to ask to speak to others who have done a job before me. I’m smarter about saying no and more comfortable figuring out the reasons behind the no.
If you’re asked to chair a district task force, head the book adoption committee, or plan the next professional development day and are ready to say no, make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons.
Before Saying No
Ask yourself a few questions if you’re asked to do something and are thinking of refusing.
1. Why are you saying no? Is it because you don’t want to do it? You don’t believe in it? You believe you’re not good at it and don’t want to stretch yourself? (And if that’s the case, why don’t you want to challenge yourself?)
If you’re not sure why you want to say no, consider creating a concept map. In the middle of a page, draw a circle and write, “I don’t want to do (whatever the challenge is) because....” Draw smaller circles around the middle circle and write your reasons in them. Just jotting down some reasons might help you determine the real reason you’re saying no.
2. When you say no, are you offering a solution? It’s easy to say no and walk away, leaving the problem for someone else to resolve. Consider being part of the resolution. The individual asking you for help or support considers you to be the best person for this task, or they wouldn’t be coming to you.
Could you offer to form a committee or group to come up with plausible solutions to the problem? Could you gather more information or do some research on the topic before committing to a no? Could you offer to work with someone, making the task more manageable?
3. What do you want? If you feel you need to say no to something that’s an intrinsic part of your job, this might be the time to sit down with a notebook and think seriously about listing some career alternatives. If the part that’s keeping you up at night might someday become your whole job, is the problem that that job is not necessarily what you want?
As you list those alternatives, write down how you would get there. Would you need more education? Would you need to travel? Would you need more technology instruction? What do you want to accomplish in one year? Five years? Ten years?
Ways to Say No
If you feel awkward with the word no because it sounds too final and absolute, here are three ways to buy some time so you can think seriously about what to do next.
1. “May I have time to reflect?” This is a reasonable request, and most often you’ll be given time to think about your answer. But don’t make the individual come to you again. Make a decision sooner rather than later and share your decision along with a reasonable explanation for it.
2. “I’ll need a day to think this through.” More assertive than asking, this is an acceptable statement that’s better than a hard no or an ambivalent yes. You’re setting a time to respond, and within that time frame you can reach out to others for advice or guidance. Make sure you do respond the next day with a definitive answer and justification.
3. “I believe in risk taking, but I’ll need to calculate this one.” Loosely based on a line used by General George S. Patton: “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” You’ve basically said you like a challenge but want to think it through. Consider asking for the pros and the cons of the risk, and ask for time to contemplate all scenarios. Again, respond within a reasonable amount of time—this risk could open a new door of opportunity.
The whole purpose of these three phrases is to buy time to refrain from making a rash decision. You want to do what’s best for you and your school.
My falling apart in the principal’s office was nearly four years ago, and since then I’ve said yes to many more projects and experiences than I’ve said no to. If you’re contemplating a no, make sure you’ve thought it through—reflect and consider all options. Who knows, you just might change to a yes.