Yes to no please

Casey Onder, PhD
3 min readFeb 18


Adapted photo from Ximena Ibañez on Unsplash

Saying no is a dynamite skill.

No supports clarity. Especially when you’re a yes to something else…

No is self-affirming. You’re honoring your needs, desires and boundaries.

No is honest. Even if it’s hard to hear, it invites dialogue and problem solving.

More time, more energy, more transparency, more freedom, more confidence.

Yes to no please.

Like anything NO can be done badly or overused, creating blindspots, missed opportunities and leaving a trail of needlessly bruised egos and/or connections in your wake. There’s good reason the rule of thumb in improv is “yes and.” No breaks the flow of things.

Saying no to colleagues, higher ups and clients can be especially delicate.

If you tend to take on too much or agree too easily, how can you stand for you “no” with panache, without being rude, creating awkwardness or friction?

Be clear on your boundaries to begin with.

Make it very clear, above all to yourself, where your yes ends and your no begins. For example be very specific if you’re asking a certain person a question and anticipate they will respond beyond scope of what you want or need. You can’t control what they do (ethically), you can create a defined container. Important: You need to stay within it too.

Flip your no to the positive.

You can express appreciation and at minimum acknowledgement of someone’s expectation or request. Then make a counteroffer or express what you DO want. If they offer “fries with that” in passing (and you don’t want fries or you hate fries entirely), ask affirmatively for what you do, e.g. a milkshake or a fruit salad. They may or may not be willing and able, and at least you’ve said your piece.

Overlook it, without overlooking them.

You don’t need to respond to everything and sometimes the best thing to do is not reply. This is especially true if you think you’ll react automatically based on a negative emotion. Keep calm and carry on. Focus on shared points of interest or your higher goal in a working relationship, not your opinion or reaction to them or their fries, unless you’re prepared to empathize. Or spend time and energy debating, proving you’re “right.” Who has time for that?

Pro tip: See the person for their goodness, and even their greatness.

Let’s say you’re giving a peer or direct report constructive feedback. What might be the positive intent behind their problematic behavior? Try to see their world through their eyes and practice basic positive regard for them as a human, warts and all. Even better, see the light in their shadow, without resorting to flattery or empty compliments. Leadership coach Adam Quiney does a great job of deconstructing the sh** sandwich in this podcast episode.

Mastering empathic, effective no’s will take you far.

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Casey Onder, PhD

Psychologist, success coach, believer in solid behavioral science and the power of tuning in.