Defining boundaries in business, and saying no

You define your boundaries, nobody else.
You decide what’s acceptable, and what’s not.
You decide which hours of which days you’re available for clients, and when you’re not working.
You decide which hours of which days you’re working on your business.
You decide when you need to receive payment by.
You write your terms and conditions, enforce them and you get to decide when or if they can be waived in extraneous circumstances.

A giant part of defining your boundaries is knowing when – and how – to effectively say no. And this is where many well-meaning people become unstuck. In our quest to be helpful, likeable, and generous-hearted, we often say yes when we should, or would prefer to, say no.

In the last seven years of working for myself, I’ve repeatedly struggled with this. However, I’ve learnt a few patterns and signs to watch off – signs that are a good indication that I should say no.

Warning: urgency and emergency

The biggest one is urgency and emergency. Some people are in a perpetual storm of emergency that sweeps others up. Soon, there’s a veritable hurricane of stress which is difficult to extricate from.

Any urgent request I receive that comes with a huge serve of stress or guilt is a red flag. Any email with the subject line “help!” or “urgent!” is an email I don’t respond well too.

I know there are circumstances which are unavoidable and unfortunate but some people live in a stress and use urgency and emergency as levers to get others to do what they want them to do.

A note-worthy exception to this rule is any urgent request that comes from media. Journalists are notoriously time poor so any urgent media request for either myself or my clients, I will accommodate as quickly as possible.

The interrelation of no and yes

Saying ‘yes’ to irrelevant or less-than-stellar things means saying no to other things, including relaxation and peace of mind, business development activities to set yourself up better in the future, invaluable thinking time and, of course, working with other clients making money.

So how do we say no? And how do we say no in a way that feels kind and gracious?

First, start by acknowledging the request and, if relevant, their bravery in making it. Thank them for thinking of you or express gratitude for the opportunity they’re presenting (even though you’re going to say no).

Then say no. Say no and close the door firmly. Don’t leave the door ajar with phrases such as “if circumstances change” or “if/when/but”. A no is a no with a full stop following. Don’t postpone the discomfort – you’ll only have to go through it all over again.

Explaining yourself

I ran a little experiment when I was younger and rejecting guys on the dancefloor (I get less opportunities to reject guys on dancefloors these days). Rather than explaining myself, I simply said ‘no thank you’. I smiled. I was civil. But I didn’t explain.

It’s your choice to explain yourself or not. As caring, well-mannered people, we want to explain ourselves when we say no. It feels kind. It feels human. It can be intensely uncomfortable not explaining ourselves.

So try it on for size. I like to make myself uncomfortable as I suspect that it’s good for me.

Or, explain yourself. You can talk about how you’re focusing your efforts and attention on something else (and invite them to get involved with that?). You can talk about your quest for working fewer hours and spending more time with friends and family. But don’t apologise.

The hidden gift of saying no

You have an opportunity to be generous by referring people onto colleagues or resources that can help them. And this is a gift that keeps giving – with one introduction, you can potentially help two people.

Defining your business boundaries better, saying no, and being more choosy is a great opportunity to build up your referral network and make these people happy by referring on work or opportunities you’re turning down. Remember, one person’s mismatch is another’s match made in heaven.

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