The right no, and the wrong yes

Jul 09, 2020
By Louise Molloy

We are transitioning to the next phase of COVID-19 survival. We have proven that we can work from home, pivot, virtually engage and bounce back. In a crisis, we do what needs to be done. As we face into a ‘new normal’, economic uncertainty and a looming Brexit, our ability to choose our commitments and complete them has never been more challenged. I am increasingly having conversations on how to manage priorities, relationships and commitments. It occurred to me that we Northern Europeans squirm at the thought of saying no, having become addicted to the way the pleasure centres in our brains fire up when we are wanted and our talents are recognised.

Now is the time to redefine caring, to redefine empathy and to deliver real, long-term support. We all accept that there are times when we have to say yes. However, there is no point in overcommitting to prop-up a broken system or inappropriate solution. I worked with a significantly challenged project manager who couldn’t say no. Once they reframed asks in the context of overall business deliverables, however, they found their voice and delivered better business outcomes.

Saying no is about understanding (yourself, your situation and the asking party) and practice.


  • What are my boundaries and values? What am I prepared, and able, to commit to while honouring my health and existing professional and personal commitments?
  • How does the request affect my energy? To do a good job, it needs to inspire, not drain, my energy so that I can fully commit to it and persist when challenged.
  • What decisions am I making when I say yes/no? If I am saying yes to avoid unpleasantness, what is the price? Human beings have finite energy and mental capacity, so investing in this request means taking from another or turning down something else in the future. Am I okay with that?

Your situation

  • Clarify the context: why is this ask being presented to you? Understand the ask; confirm the desired outcome and whether the question is the right one. For example, it is common to request more people on a project when, in fact, more ‘bodies’ isn’t the answer. More sponsorship for momentum may be more effective. What conditions are needed to make this a successful fit, and is there evidence that such conditions exist?
  • Identify the reciprocity: put your project manager hat on and assess what you need to invest (time, effort, your advocacy) and what you will get out of it (money, promotion or, less obviously, new skills/networks/brand redefinition). We are often on the receiving end of requests, but there is always something to bargain for. Be clear on how an ask can work for you, and be confident about negotiating it.


If you never say no, how can someone trust your yes? Be explicit about this, that it is your personal value to only say yes to things you can undoubtedly complete or achieve. You will gain respect and brand authenticity.

Give this approach a go. You may find that no becomes redundant as the question becomes a different question, or you are happier to say yes. And if you do have to say no, be clear, direct and give a concise reason. This shows conviction, and that you have respectfully considered the ask. Less is more. Practice on small asks and watch the impact – you might find that the right no is far more supportive than the wrong yes!

Louise Molloy is an executive coach, facilitator and independent director.