Say “No” with Power and Grace

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

I have a confession to make. I am not exactly an expert in saying “No.” I spent the entire day recently running from one meeting to another. It was Sunday. I was taught early on that it’s impolite to say “No.” A lot of my executive coaching clients have a hard time saying “No” too, yet it’s a critical skill we need to succeed and keep our sanity. Saying “No” is hard because it’s inconsistent with the beliefs we have about ourselves (we’re supposed to be collaborative, empathetic, care-taking), and the expectations others have of us. I often catch myself resenting a woman establishing boundaries when I would never think twice about a man doing it. So how do we as women leaders establish boundaries with both power and grace?

In order to be able to say “No” powerfully, we have to switch our own belief system first.

We need to align our beliefs with our goals if we are going to be powerful. Here are three possible belief systems that prevent us from saying “No” and ways to switch them.

1. If I say “No” the other person will think I am lazy or incompetent. If we find ourselves in situations where we’re constantly trying to prove how good we are, here’s a mindset shift. What if I can position my “No” as a way of demonstrating that I am being strategic by prioritizing what is most important? What if I can position it as a way to focus on “quality” rather than quantity? What if I can position my
“No” as a way of showing how I keep my promises to those I have already committed to?

2. If I say “No” I will hurt the other person’s feelings and it will undermine the relationship. If we have high needs for affiliation and connection with others, here’s a mindset shift. What if my connection with the other person would be undermined if my “Yes” builds resentment inside of me? What if I’m not able to deliver in a quality fashion? I would disappoint them and undermine the relationship.

3. I don’t say “No” to work because it’s what gives me self-worth. If we are driven by achievement, it’s very easy for us to keep taking on more because “being productive” and “checking off the to-do list” is the area where we feel most competent and worthy. Here’s a mindset shift:. What if we were able to achieve our goals better by focusing on fewer things? What if we set achievement goals in other aspects of our lives? What if over-focus on our work made us less productive and creative?

Once we create new possibilities for beliefs, we can now look for graceful ways to say “No”. The way we deliver our message is as important as the message itself. Our goal is to deliver our message in a way that is full of warmth, empathy, and appreciation for the other person because, everything else being equal, we’d rather be nice than not.

1. Set expectations upfront. We can set expectations up front about our other priorities and that helps us set boundaries. We can talk about all the other priorities we are passionate about.

2. Acknowledge needs even if we are not the one to fulfill them. This can go something like this “I know how important this project is to you. It’s such a good idea. It’s just really important to me to fulfill the commitments I have already made.”

3. Make sure that you express your own emotion toward the person. If you are sincere about this person, you can say “I really admire your commitment to making this happen.” Your choice to say “No” is not indicative of their value to you as a person.

4. Give them appropriate reasons.
If there are specific competing priorities, you can share these with the other person, but make sure you reassure them emotionally first.

Understand that being able to say “No” is a leadership practice. It’s like when we first learned how to ride a bike, we were a bit sloppy at it. So, give yourself permission to fail, learn, and keep practicing. To continue to grow in our confidence, it helps to journal about our successes.

If this resonated for you, please comment, share, and subscribe to my blog.
Here’s a great tool on Saying No from Forbes.
Here is an example of a recent failure I experienced and what I learned: “Leadership Lessons in How to Fail Well.”

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc., a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. A former C-Suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam. Subscribe to her blog at

5 Responses

  1. Jennifer

    On the flip side, those of us who grew up without learning not to say no also need to learn to understand how to dial up our soft skills (#2 & #3).