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Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally appeared in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Q: I do not know how to say no even when I know I should. I get myself involved in all kinds of extra work and responsibilities that really interfere with my so-called personal life. Any ideas on how I can stop saying yes to everything?

A: Everyone wants to be a team player at the firm — to be seen as someone who is always willing to lend a helping hand. But what happens when your willingness to help ends up pushing your own priorities to the bottom of the “to do” list?

Sometimes you may worry that saying no to other attorneys may make you appear unfriendly or, even worse, create conflict at the firm. However, acknowledging your own commitments as a priority means saying no to others at times.

Why is it easy for some people to say no and hard for others? Here are some of the reasons and possible solutions to the problem.

Reasons People Can Not Say No

  1. The need to feel useful.
    Many people encourage others to ask for help. These helpful souls really want to give assistance, but they also may have a desire to feel needed. To overcome the tendency to continuously volunteer, try to find ways of being useful without doing all the work yourself. Offer referrals or suggestions for problem solving. Let others know they can come to you if there are problems they can not handle, but also encourage others to be self-reliant.
  2. Fear of confrontation.
    Saying yes is so much more fun and less risky than saying no. Sometimes just the belief that you could hurt the other person’s feelings is enough to get you to say yes when you do not want to. If you are thinking no, do not hesitate — say it right away. Although people may try to apply pressure, be firm. Expect to say no many times during the day. This is your right, particularly when others are asking you to volunteer your time. Remember, guilt is not fatal and the more you practice saying no, the easier it becomes.
  3. Lack of confidence and assertiveness.
    This happens when you want to say no, but you can not think of a valid reason. To overcome this problem, practice saying no in situations that do not have much emotional charge to them. Once you are comfortable with the easier opportunities, build up to saying no to the things that have more emotional impact. You will become more confident and self-assertive as you practice.

There are several ways you can say no without offending others, but you probably already know how hard it is to pull out of a project once you have already said yes. To get more accustomed to saying no, try these options.

Possible Solutions

  1. Allow someone else to say no for you.
    When another attorney requests your assistance, check your availability. If you can not accommodate the request, have a secretary or assistant call back and explain that you have checked your schedule and it is full. Be sure to thank the person in need for thinking of you.
  2. Use your schedule to say no.
    As the request comes in, open your calendar immediately and look at the week in question. Consider your existing commitments and those inevitable, unplanned situations that are likely to arise. If your schedule is too full, say so right away and explain that you have prior commitments. Then thank the attorney for asking you.
  3. Say no for now, but yes for a future need.
    It is easier to say no if you keep in mind that it simply means you will not be able to accommodate someone’s request immediately. Use this option when you are truly interested in participating, but you just can not help now. You might say, “I’m under a deadline for the next two weeks, but the next time you need help, I hope you will ask me again.”
  4. Ask for the request in writing.
    When an attorney asks you for assistance, your calendar may not be in front of you. Before committing, you must get all the details and check your availability. A nice way to ask for a written request is by saying, “I do not have my schedule with me. Could you send me a memo on this matter (or send me an e-mail) so that I can think about it and check my calendar? Thank you.” Now the responsibility is on the requester to write you a note. You will be surprised at how many requests go away because people do not take the time to put something in writing. For those who do, you can then check your calendar, evaluate your interest and make a decision without feeling pressured.

If you do not take charge of your time, other people will. You are the first line of defense in managing your time and handling the priorities you already have on your own agenda. It is possible to say no gracefully — try it for yourself.

Atticus, Inc.

This article was written by an Atticus staff member.

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