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How and When To Say No

It can often feel like every day there is a new ask of us - people asking for our time, effort, or knowledge. While many of these requests represent great opportunities for career growth, income or a warm fuzzy feeling, it is impossible to say yes to everything that comes your way. In this talk we’ll consider how to decide whether something is right for you as well as some helpful advice for when and how to say no.

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Thank you so much, Kevin, I love you, but I must admit, I have a confession to make. When I was asked to make this talk, I should have said no, but I didn't. And why didn't I? That's because I have a problem. I'm a people pleaser. I love saying yes to people. I absolutely adore receiving thank yous, and I just get excited at the thought that somebody's life was made even just a tiny bit easier by me. But over time, I can overextend myself, and I've begun to realize that it's getting harder and harder for me to keep up with all of those yeses that I've agreed to. And I realized a couple of weeks ago that I needed to learn how to say no. And this talk is about some of the lessons I've learned from reading some books and listening to some talks.

And as I was reading them, I realized that there were four things that I needed to understand. First of all, I needed to understand why do I always want to say yes? And secondly, why should I say no? And then figure out a way to judge when it's time to say yes and when it's time to say no. And last, I wanted to learn how to say know effectively. So, I kind of am going to go back to the first one. Why do I say yes? Because saying yes rocks. I mean, some of the biggest decisions we make that can have positive impacts, we answer those questions by saying yes. I mean, our culture and our society has really conditioned us to say yes. We're comfortable when we say yes. When we're congruent with others, we feel comfort, we feel in the flow, we feel happy to be sharing these experiences and to be doing things with others. There are no negative undercurrents.

But there's also a reason why the phrase "yes and" is used in improvisation. That's because no shuts down conversations and progress, but saying yes opens possibilities to collaborate, to build together with other people, and to further discussion. And oftentimes we feel a little bit guilty when we say no, like we're letting someone else down. Another reason why we love saying yes is we think about opportunities. We look back in the past and we see that many of the opportunities that we've had, we've been able to make the most of because we said yes. And in our minds, we feel like sometimes maybe saying no could cause us to miss out on some of those opportunities. And saying yes, like I said, feels good. We really want to, for all of these reasons, and I'm particularly addicted to it.

For me, saying yes is kind of like ice cream. Delicious. I love it. But if any of you have ever eaten too much ice cream too fast, you may have experienced this phenomenon, brain freeze. And that leads me on to my next point, that saying yes to everything can be really taxing. Especially when inside, you really didn't want to say yes. See, when we say yes when we really don't want to, it means that there is an inner conflict happening. We're doing something or giving something away and we are aware that for us it is a big deal. And we just expect the other person to intuitively know, to understand, to value and appreciate what we're doing for them. And sometimes it may feel like they don't. And over time, this can lead to feeling used or underappreciated. And in the worst-case scenario, resentment can start to fester. So, we need to figure out a way to decide whether to say yes or no. And I don't think yes and no are actually opposites. I think they're the perfect couple. They go together and help each other. And I'll explain what I mean by this. Some of you may know of Shonda Rhimes. She is a Black award-winning producer and write of television. You may have heard of her hit shows like "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," "How to Get Away with Murder," and "Bridgerton."

She did a whole talk on saying yes, and I really encourage you to listen to that talk. One of the things she said in her talk was saying no lets you say yes. That is a very interesting concept. Saying no, which closes off that comfort, those possibilities of opportunity .. I actually now after learning more actually do agree. There's two ways in which saying no really helps you to say yes. One of them is that it frees up your time. You now have more time to pay attention to the things that matter to you. You can then begin to focus the time on those priorities that you have. And also, one thing that is a nice side effect is that other people realize that your time is much more valuable, so they often come to you with asks that are going to benefit or align closely with the things you're already moving towards.

And another reason why I think that saying no helps you say yes more is it means that you get to stay healthy. Now, what do I mean by this? Now, I haven't seen one of these scenes in a long time, so bear with me, but if you think back to the last time you were on a plane, remember the airline safety briefing. The crew would always say that you're supposed to put on your oxygen mask on in an emergency before helping anyone else put on their mask. You're supposed to help yourself first then assist others. Now, these instructions weren't just there to promote self-preservation. But the airline knows that if you help other people first, you risk succumbing to hypoxia or a lack of oxygen. That would prevent you from helping anyone. So, if your workload is at capacity, taking more can infringe on burnout and your ability to help anyone.

It takes us to this word balance, it's all about finding balance. And what we have to do any time we're given an opportunity or an ask or a request, we need to weigh this opportunity and maybe what we stand to gain from it, which could be something as simple as a little bit of social capital or the nice fuzzy feeling that we all get from doing something nice from someone .. for someone against the resources, cognitively, time wise that it's going to cost us. And I realize that for me, I probably need a framework to help me make those decisions. And that takes me to what my talk is really about.

Why dating apps help simplify decision-making. Now, I acknowledge that people may have different experiences with dating apps, but bear with me for the analogy that I'm going for. So, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the user experience of many of the popular dating apps, here's a dating app that I designed for doggy dates. It's got one of my favorite dogs in the world, my friend's dog, Moo. Now, with most of these apps, there are usually two interactions you can do. You can swipe right or swipe left. Swiping right is a yes and means I'd like to find out more about this person and talk to them and start a conversation. Swiping no means I never want to see them again.

But before you actually decide whether you're going to swipe right or left, there is another option that not enough people, in my opinion, take up. And that's the option to actually look at the profile in more depth and find out more about this person or this dog in this case. And I think that's one of the things that's gonna help us to determine whether we're going to say yes or no. We need more information. And I've kind of thought of a couple of different ways that I can structure this information to help me make a decision.

I might just use the question words. When, where, what, who, and why? And I'll go through each of these in detail. So, let's start with the when and the where. So, this is asking yourself when is it happening? Is there an actual date for it? And if there is, can I make it? Also, this is asking yourself, how much time is it going to take me to do this thing? Is it coming at a time when I have so many other deadlines coming up? Or is this deadline far ahead and I can actually have time to do this? Now, the reason why I like this is because it's easy if you keep your calendar up to date it's easy to have an instant no without having a lot of cognitive load. One, piece advice is make sure your calendars are up to date.

The next up is what. What am I doing? Have I done this before? In your head, you need to decide how difficult this task will be. Is it something I've done before or something I need to learn a lot more about? In your head, whatever difficulty you kind of put it add, add a couple of extra difficulty points as well. It's very easy to underestimate how hard the task is going to be or to not foresee some road bumps that might come along the way. Now, after you've figured out what it is that you're going to need to do, you then think about who. Who are you going to be working with? Now, this one might take a bit of time to develop when you're early in you're career, but as your network grows, you notice the types of people that you work well and the types that maybe you don't work well with. They may not necessarily be bad people, but maybe their working styles causes a bit of cognitive dissonance or their aims and goals are not aligned with yours.

The other thing you might notice is the person who is working with you might be very experienced at the thing or not. So, if someone's very experienced, they can support you, and that actual cognitive load goes down. But then on the other hand, it might be someone who is a little bit more junior and hasn't done it before, and you're going to need to take what may have seemed like an easier task and it just takes a bit more cognitive load because you also need to support this other person. So, think about who you're going to be working with. And all of these need to balance against the why.

If this is successful, what would that look like? What is the benefit and who gets it? Now, this is a very important question. And one piece of advice that I was given recently, which I think is really, really useful, is that every three months or every six months, whatever works for you, it's good to write down what your priorities are. What are the things, the needles that you're trying to move? So that when asks come and you look at the "why," you can measure those against the impacts that you're trying to have right now.

Now, I think .. say that we should look at all of these things because we really want to evaluate whether something is worth doing before rather than after. Now, I'm a massive Marvel nerd if you haven't guessed by now. One of my favorite movies, "Infinity War," has Thanos who is the villain or hero, depending on what you think about the movie, who snaps his fingers to disappear half of the universe. He goes through so much struggle to enable him to do this. And one of the things he has to do is sacrifice his daughter that he kind of loves, Gamora, and when he finally succeeds on his mission, he has a vision and he sees his daughter that he's sacrificed, a baby version of his daughter, and she asks him, "what did it cost?" And with great anguish .. the acting and the CGI was amazing .. he says "everything." And sometimes I wonder if right at that moment he had known, like, way at the beginning, before he embarked on his quest that this is what it was gonna cost him, would he still have gone on that mission? And that's what we want to do. Want to be finding that out after the fact. We want to ask these questions and gather all of this information. But we need to figure ought a way to digest this and actually turn it into something that's going to help us make a decision. Well, I'm going to steal a matrix from the world of business. I love stealing things from the world of business.

And this is something called the Growth Share Matrix. And it helps companies that have many different products decide which ones they're going to put more investment in and which ones they might move away from. There's two axis, how much cash does something generate and how much does something cost? I'm going to use Amazon as an example because they have their hands in a lot of pies. So, let's put some of Amazons products on this.

In the bottom-left, which is something that takes low cash but generates a lot of cash, we have AWS. Makes a lot of money for Amazon and it helps keep the lights on. Helps pay for everything else. And the things that maybe cost a lot but still generate a lot of cash, you may have something like Echos. I don't want to say the "A" word because mine is right there. Did you actually know those devices barely make I think just a tiny bit of profit? By themselves, they wouldn't be a viable business, but they actually help because they mean that customers interact with the rest of Amazon's products. So, it's something that is high effort but high reward, so they still keep it on.

Now, they have things as well that are low reward and very high effort, and it's questionable whether they should still be doing those. I'm gonna specifically choose Blue Origin, the space company that he started. In the future, it might move over, but right now, I don't think it's really making them much money, and it's definitely costing a lot. And they usually have the things that are low effort, low impact, usually they're the things that actually get moved away from. If you've never heard of the Amazon Fire Phone, there's a reason why it's in this space.

What does this mean for us? Well, I kind of take this .. and I'm gonna put two different axis. So, rather than cash, I'm going to look at the effort cost. How much effort do we need to put into a task? And the possible impacts. How .. what's the "why" and how is this gonna help me? So, we use the when, the whereís, the whatís, and the whoís to determine how much effort a task is going to take or a request is going to take, and then we use the whys. Is it aligned with my current goals and aims? And we use that to determine how much impact it has. And I think a good way for me to explain this and put this into practice is to just give you an example of some asks that I've had to deal with recently.

So, last month, I had someone reach out and say, hey, Nathaniel, my name is "X", I'm reaching out to you with a fun invite, if you're open to it. The EB or employee brand is creating a video for Global Diversity Awareness Month. I'd love to have you in as one of our speakers explaining the role, et cetera, et cetera. Cool. Let's re-read this but using the framework we've had in mind. When and where is it? The first week of October. Where is from my home just because we're all virtual. And it's going to take 30 minutes of my time. Speaker, what am I going to do? I'm going to be a speaker. That's something I'm very, very comfortable with doing. It's not necessarily going to be a massive amount of cognitive load, especially because I don't need to write a whole talk. I just need to explain my role. It shouldn't take me long. Who am I going to be working with? The Employee Brand Team. I've never worked for them before. I'm going to put a bump on the effort cost because I might not necessarily work with them as well as other teams. What's the impact? What will come out of this if it's successful? Well, I'll get to collaborate with a new people if it's good. That's actually one of my goals at the moment, to collaborate with other teams. I'll also get face time on Twilio socials.

It may seem like I'm craving social media attention. I actually live in a public-facing role, so it's actually beneficial for my career for companies .. for other people to see me and attach my face to the brand of my company for now.

So, when I put this on the Matrix, I see that this has a decent amount of impact that fits into the goals that I have in store, but also it the not going to cost me a lot of effort, so it's going for go over in that corner. That's something, yes, I like this. I'm going to keep this going. Now, let's look at another ask. Hey, there. I hope you're well. The EIC, or the Early in Career Team has a number of hiring events coming up with a tech focus. They ask me to look at the signup sheet and see if I can help with any. One thing I actually like about this ask is they acknowledge I've done so much for them before so I might not have the bandwidth. Let's go about this using our framework.

Now, when I actually looked at that sheet, those events started late because they were U.S.-centric and went into my non-working hours. So, that's a lot of effort for me. Also, what did I have to do? I had to do interviews. Interviews are something that I believe you should do a lot of preparation for to make sure the candidate has a great experience. And because of that, I didn't think .. I realized that this was going to be an extra amount of cognitive load that I would have to deal with. Who was I gonna be working with? The Hiring Team. I've worked with them many times before. And what's the impact? What's the why? Well, I get to help the Hiring Team, but right now it's not aligned with any of my goals. It's gonna help people early in their careers in the U.S. Right now, I've been focused on trying to help the early in career people, particularly interns, in our office. Not necessarily helping me with my goals. So, what do I see. It's got a high-effort cost and a low possible impact. I don't think I'm going to use this, and I actually said no to this ask.

So, what do we see here? We have a framework that helps us to judge whether this is something that we're interested in. However, I used an example of these scales earlier to talk about the fact that we need to balance the costs of the effort against the impacts that it could possibly have to say yes or no. But that was not really an accurate analogy. And this is because physics remains constant. However, as human beings, our availability, our stress levels, and the way we value opportunities is always in flux. So, that matrix may always be changing, but it's important to still look at it as how much effort are we going to have to put in versus what we stand to gain?

And when you've absorbed all of that information, you still need to trust your gut. Usually, when we gather a lot of information, we have a clear idea in our head what we should do. So, trust yourself. And at times when you've trusted your gut, you're going to see .. need to say no. And this is something I really wanted to get good at. And from a couple of different places, I thought the way to say know effectively is to be like a ballerina. This may seem interesting, but I think ballerinas represent a wonderful balance of strength and grace. When they move around on the stage they look so elegant. At the same time, the amount of ankle strength and core strength they need to do all those moves is impressive. This is what we want to do in our answers.

We want to be grateful. Be polite and thank them for asking you. I'm glad you considered in me, thank them for considering you, and, unfortunately, you can't do it at this point in time. But at the same time, you want to be firm. You want to make sure that that person leaves with the understanding that you have said no. So, rather than saying, um, maybe I'll try to make it work, that might leave things open like you are going to try and do this ask. You've actually left the door open for them to come back and say, have you tried? And they have an expectation you're going to put some cognitive energy towards this. However, you could say, unfortunately, I can't help at the moment. I will let you know if I have more time later. Now you remain in control of your time. They may have an expectation that you will let them know if you're free and available if that no has changed to a yes, but you didn't leave the door open. You were firm about your answer.

Another thing you should do is take ownership of your decision. Don't lie. And don't make elaborate excuses. Elaborate excuses, they don't really actually solve the problem. Now, an excuse is very different from a reason. An excuse is usually unrelated to why you're actually saying no, whereas a reason is a very clear blocker. Rather than lying, you can say, unfortunately, this is something that aligns with my current priorities.

Maybe it's your manager making an ask. You can talk to them maybe about rearranging your priorities so you can make this work. And another thing that you should do as well is you should also offer an .. now, you don't have to offer an alternative. I've put an asterisk here deliberately. The reason I say this is it's not your job to offer an alternative. You saying no doesn't still mean that you owe them an answer. But what you might want to do is you might want to if you think this is a great ask but not for you right now or not for you for "X" reason, you can explain to them those circumstances. Say that you can't do this because of other projects, but maybe another time, and you give them a time that you would be available.

Also, I'm from an underrepresented community, but I've been so privileged and I have had many, many great things and many, many other people hand me opportunities. And if an opportunity isn't right for you, there might be someone else from an underrepresented background that you can pass this opportunity on to and you can refer to. You might be able to tell them, this isn't going to work for me right now, but if you are okay with it, I can actually reach out to someone and ask them if they're available.

But remember, at the end of the day, it is your right to say no. Now, you can be graceful, but don't let anyone make you feel guilty for setting boundaries. Remember, yeses are like ice cream. Feel so good, but too much of it can be really taxing. But, rather, what you want to do is gather as much information as you can and balance that effort cost against the impact it could have. Remember The Matrix. Kind of like Neo. And last but not least, when you need to say no, say no with grace and strength like a ballerina. Now, there will be many requests coming your way from work, friends, and family, and with all of that noise, it can be easy to overlook one of the most important set of requests. These are the requests that come from within. Sometimes, the best thing that you can do is to drown out the noise and swipe right on yourself. Say yes to your body when it needs a break. Say yes to your mind when you need peace. Say yes to your dreams, your hopes, your visions, and if you need a little help saying those yeses to yourself, just remember that saying no lets you say yes.

My name's Nathaniel Okenwa, and next time I'm asked to do a talk, I might just say no. Thank you.