Viewpoints: No: A valuable word to have in your vocabulary

January 27, 2015
Gail M. Carroll

Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.
~ Josh Billings, American humorist 1818–1885

The most difficult word for most of us to say is “no.”

Amazing that when we are two years old, the word “no” comes so easily for just about everything as we test our boundaries! What happens to us as we grow and develop? We seem to lose that sense of clarity around our boundaries as the whirl of studies and work life sweep us up at the speed of light. For a variety of reasons we feel compelled to say yes to everything, making it tricky to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

For educators, this balance can be even trickier. Why? In the early days of your teaching career there may be a sense of fear around saying no to work things because you are not yet tenured, so you often take it all on. When teachers reach tenure, though, they sometimes forget that they can say no.

Whether you are a tenured or untenured teacher, there are little ways you can present to others that you are trying to achieve balance. It is crucial to set good boundaries and to take care of yourself, as these qualities will make you a better teacher and enhance the quality of your overall life. Here are some things to think about to help get you started on practicing your “no”:

Try to thoughtfully craft your choice of words. For example, when someone asks you to do something that has not been part of your schedule and you are feeling that your schedule is already close to or at a breaking point, try phrasing such as, “I’d really love to do this, but my schedule is very full (or overfull) at this time. Is it possible for us to postpone another deadline so that I could give this the full attention it needs?”

Think in terms of priorities. When someone asks you to do something, what is the priority? If the response is urgent, then see the response above. If the request is not urgent then an appropriate response might be, “I’d love to do this for you right now. How urgent is this?” or “Perhaps we can negotiate a time that could work for both of us.”

Or you could recommend a colleague or other avenue that might be able to assist with the request. If you’re unable to help, recommending a way for them to achieve their goal can also be very satisfactory. So even though you are saying no, you are still helping in some small way.

We often feel under pressure from colleagues, family and friends to respond immediately to their requests. Some people may be offended or take it personally when we say no. Remember, the only person you have control over is you! To take the heat out of immediate responses and avoid automatically saying yes only to later try getting out of the request, you could respond by saying, “I’d really like to help. Let me check my schedule first and I will get back to you.”

Sometimes you just have to put you first. Some weeks are overfull with work, family and/or personal commitments. Saying no is often critical to your overall health, especially your mental health.

Strategies for saying no

When saying no feels impossible, here are a few starters:

Start by saying no to little things as practice. You don’t want to be disrespectful or get into great trouble or be labelled a troublemaker, so choose little things to begin with that will allow you the practice and even lighten your schedule just a bit. Being overscheduled in your work life will mean an overscheduling in your personal life and an imbalance all around.

When saying no, keep your explanations brief and simple. No need for long detail.

Always work from a list. It will help you to prioritize, and you will be less likely to forget important details and deadlines.

Always use “I” statements, and remember to present yourself assertively and not defensively. When we respond with statements such as, “I already have all of this to do and now you are asking me to do more?!”, we may appear to be too defensive. Instead, try something like, “I think that sounds like a great idea. Just let me check my schedule and I’ll get back to you.”

Gail M. Carroll is a co-ordinator with the Employee Assistance Program for the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association. An extended version of this article was originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of that association’s publication The Bulletin.