The Art of Saying No: Strategies for Taking Control of Your Time

Tips for busy RNs just in time for the holidays

A nurse in white scrubs and wearing a white mask is holding up her hand in a stop position

Being a nurse can leave you feeling like a rubber band: constantly pulled in every direction. It’s not just your patients either — managers, colleagues, family and even friends can sometimes also tug you this way and that. And, just like a rubber band, if you’re stretched too far, something is liable to snap.

The only way to avoid that is to recognize your own limits and learn when and how to say no. This is all the more important around the holidays, when you may have to juggle extra shifts, staff parties and family visits.

Why It’s Hard

Saying no is tough in our society, and it can be tougher still for nurses, who are encouraged to put others’ needs before their own. Do you often feel guilty about turning people down, take on too much because you enjoy the feeling of being needed, or worry that you’re selfish and uncooperative for refusing a request or invitation? You’re far from alone!

Unfortunately, some people are quick to take advantage of such anxieties. Accept a task once or twice as a favor for a colleague or your manager and you may find that chore added to your expected regular duties. “Just this once” can become “all the time” if you’re uncomfortable with confrontation or setting boundaries.

It can also be tough to say no when you’re faced with too much of a good thing. For instance, you might be presented with multiple opportunities that would support your most cherished goals and dreams (like speaking at a professional conference overseas or joining your hospital’s shared governance committee) — but that you know in your heart of hearts you don’t have the time or energy to engage.

Three Good Reasons to Say No

If you’re like most nurses, you don’t need more excuses to say yes. Instead, take inspiration from these excellent reasons for saying no:

You’ll respect yourself more — and so will others.

Surprisingly, this usually includes the people you turn down, something I’ve proved to myself countless times.  If you tell someone, “When I take something on, I like to give it my all, but I’ve found I can’t do that if I spread myself too thin — and I feel fully committed right now,” it’s a rare person who won’t nod appreciatively.  Frequently, they’ll immediately back off with a comment like, “I know just what you mean; I’m like that too.”

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You’ll encourage people to come up with their own creative solutions.

If you say yes any time someone requests your help or advice, you may be depriving them of an opportunity to develop their own resourcefulness and problem-solving skills.  Those who have been preceptors or instructors know, that learners need opportunities for hands-on practice, even if it means making some mistakes.

You’ll be able to enjoy other activities more wholeheartedly.

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, cutting back on commitments is one of the best ways to correct that situation. This is one of the best reasons of all! Without the downward drag on your spirits that comes from feeling tired, stressed out, guilty and inwardly resentful, you’ll feel lighter, more joyful and more fully attentive to the activities and projects to which you do say yes.

Setting the Right Tone

While saying no can be enormously beneficial, neither you nor others will reap those benefits unless you can do so gracefully. Declining in a way that is tactful and thoughtful conveys respect for the other person and yourself. Another piece of advice: Keep it short! Most of us use far too many words when all we really mean to say is, “No, thanks!” Conciseness is the essence of confidence. If you sound sure, people usually will accept that your mind is made up and won’t try to argue you out of your decision.

Seven Respectful Refusals

Here are some tactful turn-downs that you can customize, rehearse and put into practice until saying no feels as comfortable as saying yes:

  1. The Wish: Often, we would love to say yes if we could, especially for people we care about. Why not say so immediately, with great enthusiasm, just before you decline?  Say something like, “I’d really love to say yes, but I just can’t — I’m way overbooked,” or, “You know I’d never say no to you if I could help it; I just have too much on my plate right now.”A sincere, positively framed “no” may feel better to the asker than an ambivalent or resentful “yes.”
  2. The Compliment:  A variation on the above is to frame your no in a compliment. For instance, “Your parties are the best — it’s just my luck I’ll be busy that night,” or, “You’re such a good organizer — I know you won’t have any problem recruiting other volunteers.” This helps keep the requester from feeling slighted and avoids slamming the door on future invitations.
  3. The Alternative:  Suggest another way to accomplish the goal. Say something like, “Our unit is overcommitted, but our teams have discussed some contingencies that might help. Have you considered … ”  This way, the requester will come away seeing you as cooperative and helpful even if you turned them down.
  4. The Stand-In: A variation on the above is suggesting someone else who might be able to fulfill the asker’s request. Say, “I can’t attend that meeting [take on that volunteer duty, precept that new hire, etc.], but I think Sally [or Hector, or whoever] might be great for it.”  Be sure that the people you suggest would welcome the opportunity. That way, your tactful no could be great news for them as well as the requester.
  5. The Delay: Sometimes, you aren’t in a position to refuse outright, such as with work-related requests from your boss. In those cases, the most diplomatic way to say no is to emphasize that you can’t do it until a later time or date.  Say something like, “I can’t take that on right now, but I could look at it later today/tomorrow/next week.” If the task is time-sensitive, the requester may ask someone else. If not, make a note for yourself to follow through when you promised.
  6. The List: Another useful way to respond to a manager who asks you to take on a new task when you’re already feeling crushed under a staggering workload is to list the things you’re currently doing.  Say, “I’d be happy to lead the DAISY committee, but I have a lot on my plate right now, including …  [present your list]. Could I delegate some of these tasks to another team member so I can take on this assignment myself?”Keep in mind that your manager, being busy too, probably has no idea how much work you’re already doing at this moment. When they review your work in progress, you may find several items either crossed off permanently or transferred to someone else.
  7. The Quickie: Sometimes, just keep it short and simple: “I’m sorry, I have a prior commitment”; “I can’t make it, but let me know how it goes”; or “Sorry, I just can’t fit it in.” All are straightforward and brook no argument.Keep in mind that your prior commitment could be a private one. After all, some of the most important — and often neglected — commitments we make are to ourselves. It’s perfectly reasonable to turn down a dinner  invitation for the only evening you have all week to relax and unwind.

Now that you have some good methods for saying no, you can start practicing right away. Your life and work will be better for it.

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