Just Say No (but How?)

One of those persistent stereotypes-by-gender is that women are less good at saying no than men. Whether or not you believe that to be true, there is no doubt that many of us – myself included – are less than perfect at saying exactly what we mean. It is too easy to try to soften a rejection to the point that the listener, who may after all have an ulterior motive in not hearing ‘no’, doesn’t appreciate that your refusal is exactly that. This is not confined to Early Career Researchers, a topic recently addressed here. We can all struggle unless incredibly resolute and clear.

I probably first appreciated this lesson when a PhD student and found I had been assigned to help out in an undergraduate Electronics Lab. I could not imagine how this had happened, given I knew absolutely nothing about the subject (and to be honest didn’t care overmuch). As it was my PhD supervisor who had had the job of assigning the task I asked him why he’d done it. I thought it was some personal joke against me but no, he claimed to believe I’d wanted to take the role on. I decided I must have said something along the lines of ‘Well I know nothing about the subject and maybe it would be good if I did’, which had been translated as ‘It would be wonderful to have to learn these skills so please put me in a position where I have to’. I’d like to think I had learned something from this, but I’m sure I am still perfectly capable of weasel wording ‘no’ into something that can be translated as ‘yes’.

Undoubtedly, very often not being clear is a mistake. It is true that sometimes one wants to be persuaded into some role. A response of ‘Oh not me, surely you don’t think I could do XXX’ might indeed be modesty, false or otherwise, and the speaker really does mean ‘Please persuade me because it sounds awfully exciting but I feel nervous about it’. However, probably just as often, it may simply mean ‘not me’, but our inability to say something as bald as that may find us doing something that we neither want nor that it is in our interest to do. So, finding words with which we are comfortable to say no really matters.

What those precise words should be will of course depend on context. I find people now write to me inviting me to speak at events in the tone of ‘num’ not ‘nonne’. For those who weren’t exposed to years of Latin I should spell out that this means they write expecting a negative response rather than a positive one, using phrases implying they’re sure I get lots of invitations and my diary is a nightmare (both true). Undoubtedly this makes it easier to say ‘Sorry but no’, since I am merely confirming their expectations. However this is a recent development and it doesn’t stop me feeling bad, even guilty, that I simply can’t do everything. After all, I know some (but by no means all) of the things I turn down would be fascinating and valuable. But, whether or not people expect a ‘no’ answer, one has to bear in mind the opportunity cost of agreeing.

So, here are some common situations you may want to consider.

  • Being asked to serve on a new committee:
    If this is a committee that interests you and your diary is bare of commitments you probably should say yes. Far too often, though, one is asked for all the wrong reasons, such as they know you’ll turn up helping to make the meeting quorate and that you will take it seriously – but they don’t actually want to listen to your views. You may already be overburdened anyhow. Useful, clear responses such as ‘I think the workload model already shows I am contributing far more hours than the departmental mean so I won’t accept at this time’ or ‘If the department wants to see my research progress this is not the right time for me to take this on’ are called for.
  • Being asked to take on some other task such as admissions or pastoral care:
    Either of the responses above may suffice. Do not be seduced by comments such as (if appropriate) ‘you’d be so good at it – and we need a (wo)man in that role.’ You might also want to look, not just at the number of hours your colleagues work, but at the nature of the roles they are asked to do – and how they relate to promotion criteria. If you are dubious on this last point you may want to stress a variant of the second response reminding the supplicant of it, rather than simply reply on a total hours worked basis. You may ultimately need to state flatly ‘ This is an unreasonable request.’ but that can feel very awkward.
  • Being asked to work with a colleague with whom you know there will be friction.
    This can sometimes happens within research groups where several students may be expected to contribute to a common project, or when equipment needs to be shared. This is much harder to reject without strong evidence. Simply saying that you don’t like X is hardly a good strategy. It may take several efforts to put across why sharing equipment with X isn’t going to be productive for anyone because they will simply be a dog-in-the-manger and the project won’t progress (at least from your perspective). Starting from a base of ‘I have not always found X works collegially’ you may ultimately need to escalate to ‘I am not prepared to work with X’ – and then defend that position. If X is the supervisor’s pet, this may of course require you to find a new supervisor in due course.
  • Being asked to do outreach.
    Many of us want to do outreach; it’s important and enjoyable to get into schools and enthuse the next generation of budding scientists and engineers. However, if you’re good at it there is the danger it can take over your life and that people will expect you always to be willing to visit yet another school. I have devised my own strategy to cope. I have identified a radius beyond which I won’t usually travel and if I turn down an invitation I will try to come up with an appropriate, but more local, name to offer. It may also make sense to decide in advance upon a total number of talks that you won’t exceed in a year. Then it is easier to say ‘I’m sorry, I have already done N talks this year and that’s my limit’ – and stick to it.

We all get asked to do too many things. Deciding which ones to accept is likewise always a challenge. How do you know, however interesting a new task or role is, another one – even more interesting – may not land in your lap tomorrow? Nevertheless, it is crucial for one’s career and sanity to set limits on what one accepts and to say no in completely unambiguous ways. Otherwise, there are many elephant traps to capture the unwary and unprepared.

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2 Responses to Just Say No (but How?)

  1. Thanks for a really useful article.

    I find it easier to say no in writing than face-to-face. Partly this is because I can compose my thoughts. Also, it means that the request is spelt out in clear terms. That is, the person asking has had to think about what they actually want.

    So if I am unclear about exactly what is being asked, or suspect that I may want to say ‘no’, then I ask people to ‘send me a note’.

    Also, I know that I never want to disappoint people, so I’m hopeless at saying ‘no’ in person. Text gives me time to reflect.

  2. Chris S says:

    The failure to say ‘no’ also goes alongside its bed-fellow ‘the failure to be specific’.

    Whilst a postdoc in a physics department (I’m a chemist) I indicated that I would be interested in taking on some tutoring (following a request for tutors) within the department (in order to get a bit of demonstrable teaching experience post-PhD). However I failed to specify exactly what I wanted to tutor resulting in me being assigned courses on Special and General Relativity. As no self-respective physics undergraduate wants to be tutored on such subjects by an ignoramus chemist I had to withdraw from this, much to the annoyance of the academic coordinating this. The end result: I didn’t get any tutoring opportunities because I had assumed that people knew and would take into account the fact that I was a chemist and allocate appropriate courses (for example in chemical physics, surface science or some parts of solid state).

    I think it is always a very good idea to keep the room for assumption at a minimum, even with people you know well. If you say ‘yes’ make sure that that is followed up with a statement about exactly what you are agreeing to.