Your Career and You: "It’s OK to Say ‘No’"

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This past week, I had conversations with a couple of my students, one in the graduate communications program at Regis College, the other in the undergrad communication program at Curry College, about “volunteer overload.”

Both have hit that “eyes rolling back in the sockets” stage where they’re wondering if their heads are going to explode from all that they’re handling.

And, in both instances, I was able to assure them that they will survive but that they need to learn how to pronounce a very powerful two-letter word.


Now you can utter this little jewel all Louisa May Alcott-y sweetly and gently. Or you can roar like King Kong when he figured out that his Empire State Building escapade was going to end really badly.

Either way, you have to learn how to say it.

I also would love to say that I’m speaking as one who has mastered this fine art. Can’t.

I, like my students, am at pretty close to maximum overload. Between graduate thesis reading, book reading/review writing, exam grading, and new course development, in addition to the ever-evolving responsibilities that came with my election to the Public Relations Society of America’s Board of Directorsmy head is going to explode.

Not looking for sympathy (unless you just happen to feel so inclined…hint, hint!). Just stating the situation.

We do this to ourselves for all kinds of reasons. A feeling of obligation. A desire to belong in some way. A worry that “if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” A fear of being ostracized for not being “a team player.”

The list can go on for pages. The bottom line is…we do it because we don’t know how to say “no.”

The obvious and very real danger…in addition to our own mental/physical self-destruction…is that, inevitably, something either doesn’t get done, or it gets done poorly.

Either way, we let someone in addition to ourselves down. We disappoint someone we care about. We embarrass ourselves. Or worse, we embarrass others.

There’s not a secret solution to this conundrum (I’ve used this word twice in the past week; has a cool sound to it, yes?). There’s only your (or my) facing up to reality and realizing that you can’t possibly take on another project. You’ve hit your upper limit on effective, efficient productivity, and it just isn’t going to turn out well.

You then have to look the requestor squarely in the eye and say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project, but I really can’t take it on at this time and deliver what both you and I would feel is a product we both know I’m capable of.”

Note that I haven’t said “boo” about helping find someone else to fill the void.

Unless you truly have just had a conversation with a friend or colleague who expressed a desire to do exactly what you have been asked to do, don’t offer to help. Because if you do, you will have done just what we’ve been saying not to do…you’ve said…albeit indirectly… “yes.”

So take stock of where you are in projects, both mandatory and voluntary. Do a realistic calculation of how much of your time is going to be consumed in total.

Then form your lips into a circle and say… “No.”

“‘Yes,’ I answered you last night;
‘No,’ this morning, sir, I say:
Colors seen by candlelight
Will not look the same by day.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Lady’s “Yes,” [1844], st. 1


About kirkhazlett

35+ years' federal government and nonprofit organization PR experience followed by more than 20 years' undergraduate and graduate college teaching experience. Community and media relations expertise, as well as a fanaticism for quality service and customer satisfaction. PR for healthcare and member services organizations ranging from Blood Bank of Hawaii to Medical Area Service Corporation to Boston Harborfest. Consulting services for Manila and Singapore Red Cross.
This entry was posted in Curry College, feedback, Public Relations Society of America, Regis College. Bookmark the permalink.

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