Before I jump in, I am always looking for new guests for this podcast. I get a lot of weird pitches, but you know the vibe I’m going for. I like to have real conversations about people’s stories and what has helped them successfully run their businesses. I want to talk to more people who genuinely want to help others and aren’t just trying to get more sales for themselves. I’m happy to promote products and services, but that’s never the focus of this podcast. If you would like to be a guest, or know of someone who would be a good fit, please email or DM me on social @aardvarkgirl.

No. Two letters. One simple word. But for some reason, it carries a lot of weight. Some are afraid to say it. Many can’t handle hearing it. It’s a word that can change your entire life, good or bad. There’s no getting away from it though. So how can we build a better relationship with “no?” We have to get better at saying it and hearing it.

Saying no is a necessary skill to have when you’re running a business. Really, it’s a necessary skill to have as a human living your life. We can’t do everything everyone asks us to do. It’s not healthy. But keeping this in the context of work, we have to set boundaries. We have to say things like, “No, I don’t work on weekends” and “No, I’m not available for this project” and “No, I can’t attend that meeting next week.”

I hear way too often that people feel like they must be available 24 hours a day, every day, and that’s part of running a business. No! Ever heard of business hours? Or business days? Those are real things. You are running a real business. There will always be times when you’ll want to make exceptions for your good clients and work outside of those hours. But if it’s not urgent, and it’s not an emergency, it can wait. If you lose a client because you’re not willing to be available whenever they might need you, is that really a client you want to have? I wouldn’t. My clients don’t want to work evenings and weekends if they don’t have to, so they understand that I don’t either. It’s never been an issue.

It’s not necessary to apologize.

And do you know what I don’t say when I say no? Or when I don’t respond until my next office hours? I don’t say I’m sorry, unless I actually am. I want to stress here that it’s not necessary to apologize for setting and maintaining proper boundaries with your clients. That’s an emotional response and I believe business communication should be logical. Yes, that’s easy for me to say as someone who thinks logically and doesn’t always process emotion properly. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

I think people automatically say they’re sorry, thinking it will ease the blow. But do you genuinely mean it? Are you really sorry that you were out enjoying dinner with your family instead of working on a task that didn’t need to be done until the next day? Do you actually feel bad that you were at the gym for an hour taking care of yourself and missed their call? If you feel guilty that you were living your life and not waiting around in case one of your clients might have unexpectedly needed you for something, you might want to spend some time figuring out why. And that’s not a criticism. Many people carry around past traumas, insecurities, and other experiences that factor into those kinds of reactions. Working out why that happens is a good step towards healing from it and moving on with a healthier approach to work life balance.

You are running a business.

It all comes back to remembering that you are running a business. Even if you are one person providing a service, that doesn’t mean you don’t matter. Think of all the businesses you work with as a client or customer. If you realize at 11pm that you need an HDMI cable and Best Buy is closed, do you think the manager is losing sleep over not being open for you? If you need a dentist appointment, do you expect them to be there on a Sunday? Or do you understand their hours and schedule a time when they’re available? If you have a virtual assistant, do you expect them to work 24 hours a day? If so, or if you get upset about these types of scenarios, then I hate to break it to you, but you are the red flag client. But I’m guessing you understand that businesses have hours and policies and all that fun stuff and they aren’t going to rearrange everything just for you.

If it’s someone you’ve hired, whether hourly or on retainer, you’ve hopefully established your expectations ahead of time. And, because you’re a savvy business owner, you understand that you don’t get to dictate the hours or locations where they work. If you want that control, you have to hire them and pay them as an employee. You should be having these same conversations with your clients before you agree to a project or retainer. My office hours are outlined in my contract, along with guidelines for my communication preferences. Anyone who has an issue with these things isn’t the right fit for me, and I’m not the right fit for them.

Be clear about what you want.

Part of it comes from knowing yourself and what you want. When you’re clear about that, it makes it easier to say no to offers that don’t align. I’ve been offered some pretty decent jobs in the past couple of years, with people I really enjoy working with. But, they wanted someone who would work in their office for set hours multiple days a week. I have no interest in ever doing that again. It doesn’t work for me, not only because that would put a strain on my other clients, but also because I know I’m not happy in an office surrounded by people all day. It just takes too much out of me, and that doesn’t make for a good partnership on either side. I understand why they need what they need, and hopefully they understand why I need what I need. I know that’s not always the case, but I have to make the decisions that are best for me. Sometimes we can work out a solution that suits both of us, but sometimes it has to be a no and I have to be okay with that.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when you say no to something, you’re saying yes to yourself. And that’s what we need to do. Here I go again, talking about reclaiming selfishness, but it’s so important. I always preface that with a reminder that it’s not okay to do whatever you want at someone else’s expense. But it is okay to put yourself first sometimes. The only obligations you have are to yourself. Everything else is a choice.

As with everything, there are exceptions. I’m not saying you should say no to absolutely everything. Unless you really love complete isolation, that’s probably not going to do you any favors. Sometimes when you’re in a rut, the word no can be partially to blame. That’s a whole separate topic though. If you want to know more about that, check out Shonda Rhimes’ book “The Year of Yes.” What I’m talking about here is more for normal circumstances.

Reinforce your boundaries.

There are a few simple ways you can reinforce your boundaries. Set up an automatic email response for after-hours and weekend messages, stating that you’ll get back to them within one business day (or whatever your policy is). If you don’t listen to voicemails, change your outgoing message to say so – “I don’t listen to voicemails, but please email me at this address and I’ll get back to you within one business day.” Also, don’t answer your phone if a client calls you outside of those hours. Respond the following day, or on Monday if it’s the weekend. It’s a subtle way to start training them. You can always remind them politely about your hours, but it’s often a non-issue. I know with my clients, they sometimes send me stuff at night and on weekends but they don’t expect me to do anything with it. That’s just when they’re working. So again, it’s taking the emotion out of it and being practical. Sending an email or text doesn’t automatically mean they expect you to answer right away. If they do, that’s a different story. Also, if it’s truly an emergency, they’ll call you more than once and then you’ll know to pay attention.

Offer a solution.

The other important part of saying no, in my opinion, is to follow it up with a solution.

It’s kind of the opposite of Improv, which is based on the concept of “Yes, and.” Here, we’re talking about “No, but.” You can say no, but don’t leave it at that. Offer some help in its place. 

No, I don’t work on weekends, but I can get this done for you on Monday.

No, I’m not available for this project, but here are some recommendations for other people who would do a great job for you.

No, I can’t attend the meeting next week, but I’m available on these dates if you want to discuss it then.

You always want to come from a place of helping them. So it’s not just “No, I won’t work out of your office because I don’t like to do that.” It’s, “No, I am not able to work out of your office, but I’m happy to support you remotely. I’m much more efficient and can offer you more focus when I’m in my own environment.” Frame it as a benefit to them. They won’t always go for it, but chances are they’ll consider it from a different point of view than if you just shut them down.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve said no to projects in recent weeks.

I am not available those dates, but here are some solid people you can try. Thank you for the opportunity and best of luck to you with your event. 

I appreciate the offer and would love to work with your team, but I don’t have the bandwidth to take on another project this month. Thanks for thinking of me!

I am maxed out on time this month, so I wouldn’t be able to give you or your project the attention you deserve. Please keep me in mind for the next one. 

I think the key is to be direct and polite. No apologies. Leave it open ended if you do want to work with them in the future, but if not, leave it simply as you’re not available. If you have any recommendations or resources you can offer in return, they will likely reach out again because you were helpful.

Saying no to one job doesn’t mean you’ll never work again. It means you’re leaving room for something better. Saying no when you see a lot of red flags is way better than ignoring your instincts and taking the money just to end up with a micromanaging, demanding client who is making your life miserable. Sometimes a simple no is best for everyone, even if it feels scary in the moment.

Rejection usually isn’t about you.

Keep that in mind when you hear no as well, which can be equally upsetting. That’s where emotion can really do a number on you. But rejection isn’t always about you. It usually isn’t.

If you don’t land that client you’ve been pitching, it doesn’t mean you aren’t good at what you do. Maybe they want to work with you, but their budget changed and they can’t afford it. Maybe someone else in the company made a decision and they had to go in another direction. Maybe one of the team members had a relationship with one of your competitors and it was easier to go with someone they knew.

The hard part is that you don’t know why they said no, or ghosted you, and probably never will. So you can drive yourself crazy wondering why and assuming you did something wrong. Or you can accept that it wasn’t meant to be, and assume it had nothing to do with you. If you can’t know the truth, and you’re making an assumption either way, you might as well take the pressure off of yourself and throw the blame on the other person, right? It’s not me, it’s you.

Saying no and hearing no isn’t always easy. It can seem like a word loaded with pressure and consequences, but if you build a healthy relationship with it, it can be a positive force in your work and your life. So don’t be afraid. If something doesn’t align with what you’re trying to accomplish, say no and be confident that it’s the right response. A no right now might lead to a better yes in the future.