Setting boundaries: how to say no with grace

Jun 28, 2021

As a business owner, mum, and someone who likes to be liked, I have been known to say “yes” to things I don’t have the capacity for, I’m not the right person for, or just don’t want to do.

Maybe you have too.

Perhaps it’s offering to take on a project you know will mean burning the midnight oil. Perhaps it’s clients who regularly haggle on price or scope creep. Or maybe it’s agreeing to host the baby shower or family gathering you just don’t want to host or flying to a destination wedding you just can’t afford.

We’ve all been there.

On the surface, you can probably justify your yes. After all, it won’t take you that long. It’s easy enough for you to do. That couple came to your wedding. It’s easier to just say “yes” than “no.”

But here’s the thing, your capacity is finite. Every time you say yes, something else has to give.

What if (my favorite question!) you asked yourself the following question before agreeing:

If I say yes to this, what will I have to say no to?

Would you be saying “no” to your kids?

Would you be saying “no” to yourself?

Would you be saying “no” to your values?

Would you be saying “no” to your goals?

That itty-bitty request doesn’t feel so small anymore, right? Now it feels like what it is – something that’s taking you away from the things that matter most to you.

Being in integrity with what you will and won’t do doesn’t have to make you an unpopular hard-ass! Quite the contrary, clear boundaries allow you to show up as your most transparent, kind, and generous self.

If transparency, kindness, and generosity sound good to you, here are 3 ways to help you gracefully say no to (or let go of) the things that don’t serve you.

1. Identify your priorities

We often say “yes,” not because we want to do the thing, but because we haven’t got clearly defined reasons to say “no.” The result is that familiar doom cycle of internal back and forth (should I? shouldn’t I? What will they think of me? etc. etc.). The antidote is getting crystal clear on what your personal priorities are.

For me, my priorities are – in no specific order – health & well-being, family, friends, clients, and joy.  When I’m stretched too thin, those things suffer and I’m not as good at my job, or being a good human!

2. Know your capacity

I LOVE this one because, if you’re anything like me, you think your capacity is far greater than it actually is.  We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term and underestimate what we can do in the long-term.  So, if you have big plans for the long term, e.g., a tidy nest egg, living in the home, town, country you dream of, kids graduating college without crippling debt etc., you’re going to want to manage your short-term commitments.

Capacity is always shifting. For example, in the earlier days of my business (pre-kids), I could work as long as I wanted and regularly left my office at 7 p.m. With my kids still being pretty young, my workday is shorter by necessity. As they get older, it’ll change again. There’s no “right” or “wrong” capacity, just what’s right for you, right now.

When considering an opportunity, I use the following questions to help me figure out if I have the capacity:

  • What would be my reason for saying “yes”? My goal is to discern between adding value to my life and saying “yes” out of habit, obligation, or FOMO.
  • What will I have to say no to if I say yes to this?
  • Will any of my other priorities: clients, family, health, or joy suffer if I say yes?

3. Check in with your values

You know I’m a BIG fan of identifying and articulating your values (and the behaviors that go along with them). Because, when clearly stated, they become your north star and help you make the right decisions. For example, if one of your values is “family” and a client clearly shows signs of having zero regard for your family time, expecting you to be available on nights and weekends, you can say “no” with a completely clear conscience.

4. Be honest

Put your hand up if you’d rather tell a teensy white lie than the truth when saying “no” to someone. After all, where’s the harm, right? But here’s the thing, honesty reinforces the fact that you’re doing the right thing in saying “no.”

The great news is if you’ve done steps 1, 2, and 3, you have all bona fide reasons you can share. For example:

I’d love to take on that speaking opportunity, but I believe artists should be paid for their work, so unless it’s paid, I’ll have to respectfully pass. Should anything change, please do reach out again. Thank you for thinking of me.

Or

Thank you so much for considering me for this project.  As a working parent, I have a policy of not working on evenings and weekends and, given the time frame and turnaround, I’ll have to pass.

Or

That sounds like an exciting project. Due to the high-touch nature of my work, I only take on 2 new clients per month, so I won’t be able to start work on this until (fill in the date). I understand if this timeline doesn’t work for you and, if that’s the case, hope you’ll consider me for future projects.

I appreciate that, no matter how much sense this all makes in a blog post, this stuff isn’t easy. It’s a lifelong work in progress. Start with just one thing, be gentle on yourself and others, and practice, practice, practice.

Good luck!

Justine Clay

Justine Clay is a speaker and business coach for creative entrepreneurs and freelancers. Sign up for her free guide: How to Find High-Quality Clients and Get Paid What You’re Worth, above.