The Secret to Saying ‘No’ Without Actually Saying It

Photo: Getty Images / Portra
The World Health Organization's (WHO) addition of burnout syndrome to its International Classification of Diseases sparked a debate about how to help workers better manage their careers. Burnout hijacks all your precious mental resources and turns ambition into cynicism. As doom and gloom as that sounds though, one shift in mindset could offer the solve, according to clinical psychologist Michelle Golland, PsyD.

While we tend to think about every work opportunity as a polarized, yes or no question, negotiating within the "gray areas" can help save our burned out souls, Dr. Golland tells Thrive Global. Think about it like this: If your boss approaches you with you an exciting project, but your calendar (unfortunately) looks like a crime scene, you don't have to agree or disagree to the task. Instead, offer to be involved without being in charge.

"Whenever there's a way to strike a balance between saying 'yes' or 'no', it can be very good for your stress levels," says Lynn Berger, a counselor and career coach in New York City. "You can say, 'This sounds like something that's totally a project I would be interested, a project that I would add value to. Can we figure out a way that I can be involved in it?" That way, you're stepping up to the plate, but you only have to hit a home run on your part of the project.

"Be very clear on what steps you want to take and where your goals are, then you can match the opportunity up against that." —Lynn Berger, counselor and career coach

It goes without saying, but if you feel enthusiastic about a project, for heaven's sake say "yes"! "You have to know what your priorities are and where you want to focus your attention," says Berger. "Be very clear on what steps you want to take and where your goals are, then you can match the opportunity up against that." If the task sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry yet you have the capacity to complete it, say "yes" but use the opportunity to give your boss specifics about what you'd rather work on in the future. Of course, if you're already swamped, say "no" while continuing an open dialogue about your interests.

You'll find plenty of gray areas on your own time, too. If a friend is planning an eight-part birthday party across the span of a week, for instance, say something diplomatic like, "I'm so excited to come to brunch, but I'll have to dip out afterward to [insert legitimate excuse here]." Or offer to grab a coffee and go for a walk for a more intimate setting. You're not saying no, but you're certainly not saying yes either.

So much of what adds fuel to burnout culture is out of your control. When you have the opportunity to lay claim to your own happiness, do it.

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