In business, women are all too often stereotyped as being unassertive and not able to say no. On the other end of the scale, plenty of women are also happy to say no and do it bluntly and too often.

I would put these differences down to personality as much as gender and of course context. Either way, there are some top tips for getting the balance right whatever your natural tendencies.

As with a lot of personality theory I will talk extremes, remembering there are of course a myriad of different personalities in between. Most people will fall closer to one end or the other and so the advice should be adjusted accordingly to get the balance right.


For the less assertive type

No is a little word and yet so terribly powerful. If you are more of a cautious or reserved person, then even uttering the word no when you disagree with someone might be a struggle. There will, of course, be situations where you absolutely must be clear and just say no!

Practice saying “no” out loud in a firm voice and then afterwards back up your no with why you think this, e.g. no, that would have a disastrous effect on profits.

You don’t have to shout it or even make your voice louder as for some people they will then feel they are being inauthentic. The quiet “no” with a pause on either side can be equally, if not more, effective.

Another example of this is where people are overly accommodating and end up over promising. These types of people are often ultra-sensitive to other people’s needs and say yes to squeezing another person into the schedule or doing an extra bit of work etc. This is all well and good for the short term but leads to more problems down the line. So, a “No, I’m sorry that won’t be possible. What we can do is this….” would give a much clearer message.


For the ‘say one thing, do another’ type

These personalities are often harder to distinguish as they are hiding their real feelings. Often you see it when a pattern of behaviour emerges. If you are the sort of person that says yes you will do something but inside you are thinking “no I won’t!” then you need to evaluate the relationship with the person who has asked you. You are being passive aggressive, and you should consider why this is the case.

Why aren’t you able to say what you really mean? Typically, this would be because they have annoyed or irritated you e.g. you feel unappreciated, and so this is the real issue. A line like “I feel like I want to say no, because….” can help in a situation like this.


For the dominant or pessimist type

If you fall into the more outspoken or skeptical personality you should think about saying no less often. First, make sure the other side has felt heard – ask them questions and get them to explain more about their point of view. e.g. “tell me more”, “what else makes you think that?”. Simply having a feel for whether you have done more of the talking is an easy way of checking if you have dominated.

Then, if you still want to say no, use an alternative. This needs to be right for you and the situation, but some suggestions are: “The way I see it is this…”, “Have you ever thought of it like…”, “Yes, I see what you are saying and…….”, “let’s look at the implications of that”.

Being able to express our opinions and emotions whilst maintaining relationships is a vital skill for us all to have. All too often we know what we should say, but in the heat of the moment we say the wrong thing. Keep the mindset positive and prepare yourself well.

You need to actually practice saying the words out loud, which might not be easy if you are in an open plan office. A way to do this is simply to hold a phone to your ear so it looks like you are talking to someone. You could even leave yourself a voice message so you can play it back and hear how well you are doing.

Further News Stories

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Atholl Duncan’s CityAM article reflecting on the effects of the lockdown on business and the book he has written about it.

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The People-Led CEO podcast: Jeremy Campbell and Wayne Clarke discuss People-Led Leadership. Guests include Paul Szumilewicz, Pinky Lilani and Atholl Duncan.