When you wish you’d said no

We’ve all been there.. a time when our inability to just say “no” has created a situation that has us wondering whether a witness protection program would really be that bad..? It would certainly get you out of your current predicament. If only you didn’t have people you’d miss and who are counting on you.. as well as that whole part about witnessing a crime, but whatever!

So, what are we to do when we regret saying “yes” and now feel stuck between honouring ourselves and potentially upsetting others?

Here are my top five things to do when you wish you’d said “no”.

1. Back out gracefully if you can

This will always be the number one option if it happens to be available. If you can diplomatically bow out without too much drama or expense this is absolutely the way to go. If you had agreed to go to a networking event with a colleague but later realised that you really needed a break and an early night instead, it would be in your best interest to take this option. While it might be disappointing for your colleague to not have their sidekick along, a reasonable person will understand the need for rest and release you from the obligation without hysterics. They might be reluctant or express their disappointment in a way that is difficult to hear, but they will ultimately empathise with you. If they don’t, or if they become unreasonable or difficult, you may want to rethink that relationship in the long term anyway.

In this kind of situation the financial expense associated with withdrawing is also likely to be minor. A ticket to such an event might be $20-50, which, while not free, is a comparatively small price to pay for protecting your physical health and overall wellbeing should you not go.

On the other hand, an expensive conference with a no-refund policy, or in a situation where your involvement is critical to success and bowing out would mean catastrophe (eg you’re the keynote speaker at the conference!) this option probably won’t work. There might be ways around that, but for the most part this route will be best suited to circumstances with fewer consequences.

Regardless, always consider it first just in case!

2. Cut back on your involvement

If you can’t reverse your initial “yes” and get out of something completely, cutting back on your involvement is the next best option. This is helpful at those times when you have agreed to something because you really do want to be involved – perhaps it’s something you’re passionate about or someone you’d really love to help – but later realise you’ve overcommitted yourself.

Sometimes this happens with a client who at first seems like a perfect fit. You immediately click and the relationship develops very quickly from there. You enjoy working with them and want to do a great job, but then you end up agreeing to things you normally wouldn’t do or doing more and more out of scope work because you’re treating them more like a friend than a client. You might be in the middle of a project when you finally reach your limit.

The best approach here is to firstly get clear on what your “yes” should have looked like and what it will look like going forward. Take some time to figure out what you are ok with and what you must now stop doing in order to make the engagement a successful one. Once you’ve done this, sitting down for an honest conversation is the next step. You will need to convey your decision to the other party, hear their feedback and (hopefully) find a middle ground that works for everyone.

It’s worth noting that in this situation (but especially with problem clients) you could take option one, offer some referrals to alternate providers, and withdraw completely from the situation. It’s assumed in this case that the work is relevant, enjoyable and has the potential to be profitable so finding a way to continue is the ideal outcome.

3. Make the most of it

This option is essentially what we call “sucking it up”, but with a minor difference. Instead of gritting your teeth and hating every minute of whatever you’ve said “yes” to, the key here is to optimise the experience as best you can.

Imagine this kind of situation in your own business:

Jeff is a reputable home builder in a large city. He’s engaged to build a new home for his client Tom. Tom seems nice enough until the contracts are signed and the work commences – then Tom reveals that he is actually Satan in a Tom-suit. At least it feels that way! They are mid-way through a months-long build and Jeff is kicking himself for agreeing to build this stupid – but beautiful – house and for not seeing the tiny little red flags before he locked himself in.

Jeff is not one for confrontation and he wants people, especially his clients, to be happy. He understands that building a home is a stressful experience and wants to finish the job and leave the engagement on a positive note. To do this, he must suck it up – or make the most of it.

What does making the most of it look like?

In all of these situations, we are often being called to step up to our next level. If we find ourselves in these situations repeatedly, it is usually because we have been ignoring this call. But when the student is ready, the teacher appears!

It can be hard to believe that these kinds of frustrating, or even infuriating circumstances are opportunities for levelling up, until you look more closely at what that looks like.

For Jeff making the most of it looks like using the situation as an opportunity to work on:

  • Maintaining a positive attitude – toward Tom, the build and his other clients and colleagues,
  • Honing his negotiation, communication, and people skills,
  • Demonstrating empathy,
  • Taking responsibility for his own role in the situation so he can make different choices next time,
  • Identifying new policies or boundaries he can implement to prevent a repeat scenario in the future, and/or:
  • Staying calm in heated or stressful moments.

These are all areas that will allow Jeff to feel more empowered and less defeated by such a miserable situation. They might not be particularly fun, but they will provide a challenge that can take his focus off of the situation itself and onto the parts that he can control.

The most obvious, comfortable, and regularly chosen alternative to this option is to complain incessantly, overlook the opportunity to grow and ultimately become jaded and cynical about your clients or industry as a whole.

4. Learn from it

A follow on from making the most of it, learning from a “yes” you regret is a great way to prevent having to deal with similar scenarios playing out in perpetuity for the rest of time. This step involves spending time reflecting on the situation and uncovering the gold, that is – what you will do differently next time, and what must change to facilitate that new action. From just saying “no” instead of “yes” at the outset, setting better boundaries, being clear on your values and priorities, improving your client pre-screening process or removing ambiguous language in your contracts –  there is a lot to be learned when we can look back at what lead to a situation we wish we hadn’t put ourselves in.

It has been said that we have never really learned something until it is evident in our changed behaviour. We tend use the words “I know” frequently, as an indication that we have awareness of what needs to change or happen, but until we actually start doing those things, we don’t really “know”. We have to make a commitment to truly moving forward and making the necessary modifications that will get us the results we want. Don’t let the learning from a bad experience pass you by because it’s uncomfortable to face it or because you don’t want to spend more time mulling over it. There’s a big difference between pointless rumination and the kind of thinking that leads to levelling up.  

5. Commit to a new way

As mentioned in the previous section, making a commitment to moving forward is a key component of turning a regrettable “yes” into a positive experience. When you wish you’d said “no” but the situation is now in the past or unable to be changed, this is something you can do to put yourself back in the driver’s seat.

It’s always helpful to start small with your new commitments as going too big too quickly is likely to be daunting and discouraging which in turn can have us looking for comfort and hastily turning back to behaviours that feel more natural even when we know the outcome is not what we want.

Record all of your learnings but commit only to one little change at a time. Once you’ve got a handle on that first change, commit to the next one. Eventually you’ll have made some significant progress without ever feeling that desperate pull to return to your old ways! For even faster progress, have someone hold you accountable for those small changes – a coach, close friend or trusted colleague are all great options. You want someone who can gently remind you of your commitment when you stumble and help you get back on course.

By this point I hope you have some concrete options beyond entering witness protection (or faking your own death!) to help you move confidently through the situation you find yourself in. If you want to work through something specific and further insight would help, book a Next Step session. I guarantee you’ll walk away feeling at least 2x lighter than before (probably more like 10x but I’m trying to set realistic expectations here! ;)) with clarity around your next step and the courage to follow it through.

Until next time,

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