HYCS #21 – Saying No When You’re Afraid To

HYCS #21 – Saying No When You’re Afraid To

Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Harrison Ford steps out into thin air before the stairs appear under his foot?  Sometimes saying no feels just like that.

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I just said no to a big chunk of work.  It seemed tailor-made for me:  Facilitate a strategy meeting and teach others how to facilitate future meetings.  I was looking forward to using the course I’ve honed over the last several years with my doctoral students.

Until the entering meeting raised more questions than it answered:

  • Who is the decision-maker for the strategy meeting?  This elicited confused looks.
  • What do you mean by “strategic planning?”  I was shown a document with vague, conceptual language, more on the order of guiding principles or mission statement than a plan.
  • How many people will be in the training?  “8 in the expert facilitator training…or maybe 10.  And then maybe another 10 in the more general training.  There are 27 in the department…
  • Who is making the decision about whether this work will go forward?  “Well, er…I’m the training person…”
  • You keep talking about not having much money.  What is your budget for this?  If I know , I can work within it.  “Well, um, we’re sort of looking to you for guidance on that.”

I could have said no in the meeting, but I didn’t.

Instead, I thought about it for a few days and noodled how I’d structure the training.  But I couldn’t make the work a success without changing what was already in place, and I’d not been invited to do that.  Instead, I’d been invited to…well, I wasn’t sure.  It felt like I was being invited to color in someone else’s coloring book, using only two crayons with the expectation that our finished work would hang in the Metropolitan Museum.  It was clear to me that wasn’t going to happen.

Still, I tried to write the proposal, but I couldn’t think of a thing to say that wasn’t “no.”  So, I pinged my network and sought advice.  Not one person thought this was worth pursuing.   “Like chasing a boulder downhill, Liz:  You won’t catch up to it and it’s going to make a mess.”  One person asked why I was still hanging on.  Another found me an internal trainer-facilitator who was willing to help.  That enabled me to refuse the work and make an appropriate referral.

Why did it take me so long to say no?

  • I love facilitating meetings and I have a great course to offer.  I wanted this to be the opportunity I was looking for.
  • I’ve known both decision-makers for years – for the meeting and the work – and like them both
  • I was irritated about dealing with gatekeepers rather than the decision-makers, and didn’t say so up front.  This created a sticky residue that confused and distracted me.
  • I was frustrated that such potentially good work was coming to me in such a difficult package.

But it wasn’t until I’d sent the email that the darker, more insidious reason surfaced:

“Once your arrogance in questioning, then refusing this work gets out, you’ll be labeled as difficult to work with and no one from this company will EVER CALL A PRIMA DONNA LIKE YOU FOR WORK AGAIN.  This will destroy everything you’ve worked so hard to build.  You will die homeless, alone and very, very ill, if you’re luck under an overpass, but probably out in the open with vultures picking at you as you take your last breath.”

Whoa.  A full-blown shame attack.  “Who are you to say no to them?”  “Who do you think you are?”  “Do you think work grows on trees?”

Although at first this is awful, I’m always glad to have these voices out in the open where I can laugh at them over coffee with friends.

Because that is not how the universe works.  I don’t want to get all woo-woo on you, but there is a woo-woo side to saying “no.” When I say “no” to something that isn’t right for me, the universe can send me something that’s a better fit.  Without that feedback, I just keep getting the same stuff.   Over time, I can start to believe that’s all I’m ever going to get.   It’s worth enduring the shame to avoid that kind of despair.

It takes courage to say no. It takes courage to live with the consequences.  It takes courage to reach for the work I’m meant to do, that’s mine alone to do, and to keep refusing the work that isn’t that.   It takes courage to believe that I’m going to be OK.  But I am.  And so are you.

It helps me to remember what the words of Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (a woman) wrote:  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”


  • Look for something to say no to.  It can be small, inconsequential, trivial.  It doesn’t matter.  If you aren’t practiced at saying no, start small.
  • Talk funny about the shame you feel.    Talking funny itself will feel shameful, which makes it all the more powerful for declawing shame.  Here’s how
    1. Plant your tongue firmly against your bottom teeth.
    2. Keep it there as you talk about your deepest, most embarrassing failures and stuck places.  Yes, you will sound like someone with a speech impediment*, which might seem wrong to you.  That makes it a more effective shame-buster.

(*I can’t speak for everyone with a speech impediment, but the two I have spoken with said they were glad for the company.)