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Broadening the On-ramp for Women-run Companies

Do We Need an Excuse to Say No?

Two people I admire recently shared their silver lining in our global COVID-19 pandemic—an excuse to say no to the constant stream of requests for their time. I’ve thought about these two conversations a hundred times since. I’ve made great strides in saying no with candor and grace, but if I’m honest, I still occasionally contrive bogus excuses for my nos. It’s left me wondering: Can I really stop using excuses for my nos?

The conversations with the two people I mentioned really struck me. These are both highly successful people who have done a tremendous amount for our community. Collectively, they have facilitated over a billion dollars in investments to fuel our economy. Through the businesses they have built, sold, and invested in, thousands, if not millions, of jobs have been created. They are both involved in several philanthropic efforts, and likely donate more to nonprofits than 99.9 percent of the population. Neither of them has to work, but they both work more than full time. If they feel guilty, and feel they need an excuse to say no, is there hope for the rest of us?

Thanks to the work I’ve done in Conscious Leadership, I’ve made good strides in overcoming my guilt for saying no. I’ve learned how to candidly and politely state my preferences. I’ve learned to focus on my zone of genius and mute distractions. Yet, I still have trouble saying no. I still—albeit more occasionally—make up excuses, and yes, I’ve even welcomed COVID as an excuse once or twice.  

These two recent conversations made me realize how ingrained the need for an excuse is in many of us. I’d like to eradicate this. To that end, I’m going to start asking myself a few questions when I feel compelled to contrive an excuse to say no.

How would I react if I received this no? I often imagine that the person in receipt of my no will be extremely disappointed. However, when I think of the nos I’ve received in the past, this has rarely been the case. I’m often thankful to know where they stand and just move on to find the next yes. I sometimes have to keep my ego in check, though, and remind myself that I’m not performing life-saving procedures.

How might a truthful no be helpful? I’ve written before about how hard to hear, but helpful, feedback has propelled me forward. At MergeLane, we feel so strongly about the value of authentic feedback that we’ve made it one of our investment themes.

How might a truthful “It’s not you, it’s me” response be helpful? While “It’s not you, it’s me” is a classic cop-out, I often have legitimate “It’s not you, it’s me” scenarios when I receive compelling requests that just aren’t in line with my passions and priorities. Sharing that transparently can encourage others to model that behavior. I’ve certainly benefited from the power of doing less to achieve more and encourage others to do the same (check out my partner Sue’s Four-Minute Foursquare into Focus and Alignment). 

How might a no without explanation be helpful? I learned an important lesson from a no without explanation when I was a 22-year-old intern. I was wrapped up in some workplace drama. I was convinced that it needed to be elevated to an executive level. I asked my boss’ boss to meet with me immediately! She politely declined with no explanation. While at the time, I just felt anger towards her, I can now clearly see that my workplace drama was unworthy of executive-level attention. I figured out how to resolve my issue without her and learned many important lessons that I would have missed had she swooped in to be my hero. 

What will my excuse perpetuate in the future? There are people in my life who have a hard time saying no and frequently resort to bogus excuses. Because I know this about them, I hesitate to invite them to things. I also hesitate to reach out when I really need help. I don’t want them to feel obligated, and I’m afraid they won’t state their preferences truthfully. In writing this, I realize I should probably share this with them, because it is sad to me and I imagine it would be sad to them.

What behavior am I modeling by contriving an excuse? I have wonderful parents who have enabled a fabulous life for me. They model positive behavior 99.9 percent of the time, but I have many memories of family brainstorming sessions to think up excuses to avoid things we felt obligated to do. While their intention was to prevent hard feelings, it perpetuated my belief that I needed an excuse to say no.  

I’d like to make the commitment to stop concocting excuses for my nos, but I don’t have the courage to go cold turkey just yet. However, I am going to keep working on this and I’d like to publicly commit to truthful nos 90 percent of the time. We’ll see how that goes.

Stay tuned.

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