The Power of Saying NO: Take Charge of Your Life

saying no

In the premiere episode of her podcast Wiser than Me, Emmy award winning actress Julia Louis-Dreyfuss interviewed 85-year-old actress-fitness expert-activist Jane Fonda. The podcast is based on the premise that we can learn a thing or two from the experiences of older women to not make the same mistakes that they did. In a conversation which covered topics from love to exercise to parenting, Julia asks Jane a final question: What piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self? And Jane Fonda replied, “No is a complete sentence.” 

Jane Fonda is among many famous people from Oprah to Maria Shriver who advocate the importance of saying no, especially for women. But how do you communicate an effective no? How do you say no in a way that maintains your relationship with the asker and keeps your reputation intact? How do you refuse someone in a manner that is not fraught with anxiety and riddled with conflict? 

In my new book The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No that Puts You in Charge of Your Life, I introduce the concept of Empowered Refusal – a way of saying no that is persuasive and does not invite pushback from others. An empowered no stems from your identity and gives voice to your values, priorities, preferences and beliefs. It is a way of saying no that gives voice to what matters to you, not a rejection of the asker. 

Learn the power of saying no to take charge of your life.

Consider the following scenario: You have just completed your annual review with your supervisor in which you described an idea you have been thinking about. She responds favorably to your idea and agrees that it would be really good for business and implies that if it works it would make your upcoming promotion a no-brainer. You are motivated by this and decide to set aside a couple of hours after work every Friday to develop this idea as your own personal passion project. 

Now, imagine that it is a Friday evening and a whole bunch of people at work are headed to a local restaurant for drinks and dinner and invite you to go. You are committed to working on your project, but how do you say no to your work colleagues? Perhaps you try to come up with an excuse “I have to work late” or tentatively offer an apology “I am sorry, but I can’t because I really have to work on this project”. What my research shows is that when you come up with excuses or say a wishy-washy no as if you are operating against your own will, you are more likely to be persuaded by your friends (“C’mon, it will be fun! why don’t you work tomorrow”) and succumb to the social pressure. 

Intention, Awareness, and Clarity

Instead, if you replace saying “I can’t” with “I don’t” you come across as taking a firm stance and do not invite pushback or negotiation. In my research I find that “I don’t” conveys empowerment and puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life. In saying no to your workplace colleagues, you might say “I don’t go out on Friday’s, it’s passion project day.” By simply switching “I can’t” to “I don’t” you are more likely to be able to stick to your plan and also gain the respect of your peers. 

The Art of Refusal

In my book I describe a set of three competencies that you can develop and practice to master the A.R.T. of empowered refusal. The acronym A.R.T. stands for 

A. – Awareness

R. – Rules, not Decisions

T. – Totality of Self 


Because of the you-centeredness of empowered refusal, a key ingredient you need to develop is self-awareness. To say “no” to something effectively, you need to look inwards and be clear about your purpose and what you see as meaningful to you. You need to develop an understanding of your own values and beliefs and a vision of what success and happiness looks like to you. You need to invest in understanding answers to questions like: What sparks joy in you? What is your rockstar quality? What holds you back? Do you have chatter in your head that you need to silence? This deepened self-awareness will enable you to sift between the “good for me” activities and the “not good for me” activities and help you decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. 

Rules, not Decisions:

Armed with self-awareness, you then need to establish simple rules to guide your decisions and actions. I call these simple rules personal policies. Personal policies help strengthen your refusal and empower you to say no with conviction and determination. When we look inwards and set up a system of personal policies, we will find it easier to say an empowered no. For instance, your work colleagues are more likely to set up an outing on Thursday and invite you for that, if they know you are unavailable on Fridays. 

Totality of Self:

A refusal is an act of communication and when you use empowered language like “I don’t” or “I always” “I never” you need to accompany these words with empowered body language and non-verbal gestures like a warm smile, by leaning forward and with friendly gestures to reinforce that your refusal is about you and not a rejection of the asker. Remember that empowered refusal is a whole-body activity that involves both verbal and non-verbal communication cues to be effective. 

So that is the A.R.T. of Empowered Refusal in a nutshell. Now let’s look at why it is an essential superskill for career women. 

saying no

Women Are Increasingly Stressed and Burnt Out

A recent study by Deloitte finds that 54% of Gen Z women report being stressed all or most of the time (only slightly more than 45% of millennial women) compared to 39% of Gen Z men (37% millennial men). Similarly, a McKinsey study finds that women are experiencing unprecedented levels burnout in the workplace. Why are women so stressed and increasingly burnt out at work? 

One clear reason is that women are significantly more likely to say yes to workplace requests, feel pressured to deliver results on time and take on unpromotable tasks (tasks that are time-consuming but not related to performance on the job, like cleaning the breakroom refrigerator, planning an office lunch or organizing a retirement party). 

Learning – DECIDING – to Say NO

In the past decade or so, I have taught the A.R.T. of empowered refusal to hundreds of women executives and have seen that when we learn to say no to the things that don’t matter, we allow ourselves the opportunity to live a bigger, better and more purpose-driven lives. The A.R.T. of empowered refusal makes salient the inherent trade-off in any decision that we make: when you say yes to something, you have to say no to something else. 

One of the strongest advocates for the power of saying no over the years has been Oprah Winfrey. On April 10, 1994, Oprah wrote the words that she keeps on her desk as a daily reminder: “Never again will I do anything for anyone that I do not feel directly from my heart. I will not attend a meeting, make a phone call, write a letter, sponsor or participate in any activity in which every fiber of my being does not resound yes. I will act with the intent to be true to myself.”

We need to ask ourselves this Oprah-inspired question: Am I saying a resounding yes to the things that matter and an empowered no to everything else?  

This guest post was authored by Vanessa Patrick, PhD

Vanessa Patrick is the Associate Dean for Research, Executive Director of Doctoral Programs (PhD and DBA), a Bauer Professor of Marketing and lead faculty of the Executive Women in Leadership Program at the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston.

Ms. Patrick is a prominent scholar in her field and serves on editorial and policy boards of leading academic journals, and she is currently an Associate Editor for the Journal of Marketing Research and the Journal of Marketing. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology and the Journal of Retailing and on the policy board of the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research. She has co-edited special issues on consumer aesthetics for the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2010) and the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research (2019).


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Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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