The workplace is not somewhere people generally feel they have much choice in refusing something. It could be taking on another project when we feel already overwhelmed with existing ones. Or giving our honest opinion during a meeting when everyone else seems hooked on another. It's particularly challenging for anyone to say no to their boss and that's not just for business related issues but a whole array of emotional, mental and physical boundary violations, mistreatment and even abuses.
It takes Courage
Finding the courage to say "no" - even in our own mind - is the first step. By looking at the situation at hand and calmly reflecting on the pros and cons, we have a better chance of making the right decision on whether we should accept or reject it. It's far more empowering to acknowledge if something doesn't work for us - be it in a relationship or a task required of us - than to become a victim.
Having the courage to actually say "no" takes some practice. But first we need to get to the root of why we are so averse to saying "no" in the first place. Is it because of the fear of ultimately being judged or rejected that we feel compelled to say yes? Is it because we fear losing the backing or trust of our team mates/ colleagues/ friends? How far do we allow someone to infringe on our personal boundaries (emotional, mental, physical) before we snap or worse, before it's too late? Is the fear rational? Is it pertinent to the situation at hand or does it stem from something entirely irrelevant e.g. a childhood trauma that has nothing to do with the current event? For example, it might be that we genuinely fear that saying no to an unreasonably demanding or whimsical boss may jeopardise our position, reputation or even our job itself. Provided we have checked our own intentions for wanting to refuse him or her, the question then becomes: do we actually want to work for someone who can't listen to our fundamental needs and wishes? We might need the job for the revenue it brings but do we need to work for a tyrant who makes life a living hell for us?
We can start by saying no to small things before we tackle the big issues. We can work up the courage one small step at a time.
The courage to say "no" is a choice we all have.
Driven by authenticity
We are people-pleasers! It makes us feel good to help others, be of service, be the "nice guy or gal". We don't like to disappoint, upset or contradict... let alone get into conflict. And we like it when people like us back. This may drive us to do and say things that we don't really want. But it lacks in authenticity. In this case, we are simply doing things, saying "yes" in order to please others. The one person we are not pleasing though is ourselves. This is not to say we should become egocentric creatures who say no to everything because it doesn't suit us. But when we are not being authentic to our true selves, acknowledging what's right for us as well as others, then someone is bound to get hurt. At some point - it might be in the distant future or even in a completely different situation - our people-pleasing skill will work against us. It's far better to graciously say no to something or someone than to say yes and resent them.
We can pause and reflect on what is driving us. Are we being authentic or are we merely being people-pleasers?
Being part of the solution
Sometimes we have to put our foot down and say a firm "no". "No more! It stops right here!" For that, we need plenty of the stuff mentioned above.
More often than not, it isn't so black and white. Does "no" mean "never" or just "not now"? Does it mean "total rejection" or "not the best solution"? Is it because we can't be bothered or that we genuinely don't have the time, skill set, resources etc?
In some cultures saying "no" is simply not an option. Anyone who's worked in places like Malaysia will tell you people there say "yes" to almost anything asked of them, even when they have no idea. So when we work across diverse cultures, it's a good idea to keep these differences in mind. Setting cultural differences apart, when we are faced with a demand that we cannot fulfil, it might be an idea to spend some time thinking of solutions that could be helpful. This could include proposing other resources - including human resources, offering another time-frame or putting forward an action plan that works for all parties involved.
So rather than reluctantly accepting something or shrugging something off as irrelevant, we could pause and become part of the solution in whatever way we can.
Learning to say "no" firmly yet graciously could actually empower us and others to move forward together.