Health Managing Self Time Wellness

One good habit all associates need to break

Written by Allison Wolf

Miranda is stressed out and fighting fires on all her files. A slew of sudden departures and maternity leaves have left her as the lone associate in a busy corporate practice. She has more work than she can handle and is behind on it all despite working long days and taking no holidays. Yet when a partner comes by to ask for her assistance on a large transaction that is heating up, she finds herself agreeing even though she knows something is going to give.

Are you like Miranda?

  • When asked for help is your first and immediate answer Yes, and thinking about the repercussions a distant second?
  • Are you afraid to say No, for fear of letting someone down, of disappointing someone, or of other negative consequences that could result?
  • Do you say Yes to things that you do not want to do?
  • Do you put your own priorities and commitments last?
  • Do you feel stressed and exhausted as a result of taking on more than you can handle?
  • When you do tell someone No you are you plagued by guilt and regret?

I am writing this article on the principal that it takes one to know one. Like Miranda, I learned from a young age the value of people pleasing. I quickly realised the advantages of saying Yes to all requests for help. This was highly effective for making friends, building trust, becoming valued, and climbing the career ladder.

There comes a point though for all of us when this belief no longer serves us well, when it hinders our ability to discern what is most important and prevents us from making choices.

As your popularity with internal and external clients rises along with the complexity of your work a new habit is called for.

When you start a family and add a whole set of new parental commitments to your life a new work habit is called for.

When the cracks in your practice start to appear – missed deadlines, work handed in late, reduced performance – a new work habit is called for.

That habit is called the Positive No.

It is important to say No when:

  • When it will take time away from priorities
  • When you’re stressed or overwhelmed
  • When you’re already doing too much
  • When you’re tired or sick
  • When it doesn’t align with your priorities or prior commitments

There is no question that saying No can be challenging. The best resource I have found is William Ury’s book The Power of a Positive No. Ury, one of the world’s top negotiators, explains how to say No in a way that is effective, sustains relationships, and is respectful. To learn more about delivering a Positive No read my quick summary here. Or for a deeper dive into the topic read Ury’s Positive No article in the Oxford Leadership journal on-line.

At the heart of Ury’s work is the idea that every No in in fact a Yes to something else. When your plate is overflowing with work, a No to a new file is a Yes to all the commitments you currently have on the go.

For this reason the other crucial “know” is know your priorities and commitments. Having a to-do-list and being able to do a high level assessment of what you have on the go is vital. So is knowing what your personal priorities are.

The process for delivering a Positive No works in four steps.

  • Express your Yes!
  • Assert your No.
  • Close with a Yes?
  • End with a note of respect.

Imagine you are declining an invitation to speak at your friend’s organization:

Start by delivering your Yes and follow with your No. I have taken on a number of large projects this autumn so I am not taking on any additional commitments at this time.

If appropriate, follow with a possible Yes for another time. Next year, if the organization is planning a similar event, I’d be happy to consider it.

Finally, close with a note of respect. Thank you for thinking of me.

Here are some approaches to the Positive No for you to try out:

Short and to the point.

  • No, but thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity.

Simple explanation.

  • I’d like to help but I’m focusing on this closing right now and a joint venture agreement for Jane.
  • I am not going to be able to assist this time. I don’t have time for anything except the Merx merger at the moment.

Pause before responding. This is important as you will often need a few minutes or more to think things over and/or consult your schedule.

  • I’m away from my desk right now, can I let you know once I have my schedule in front of me?
    I’m just in the middle of meeting a tight deadline. Can I get back to you about this tomorrow?
  • Defer. This is for when you are not able to assist right now, but can later.
    Thanks for coming to me with this. My plate is full this week. Can it wait until next week?

Suggest. Make a suggestion about who else could do it.

  • I know John is interested in this topic.
  • I don’t have the capacity to assist you with that but Sarah might be able to.

Seek input. When you have work for a number of internal clients with competing deadlines or when your simple explanation has not been accepted seek input on priorities.

  • I am currently working on a financing for Dennis and have a closing this week with Jane’s joint venture client. If your matter needs to take precedence could we go speak with Dennis or Jane to enlist their support for me shifting my focus to your file.

I will leave you with a quote from William Ury:

“There is no doubt that delivering a Positive No requires courage, vision, empathy, fortitude, patience, and persistence. Changing old patterns takes practice. Fortunately, each of us is offered many opportunities a day to practice saying No. Think of it like exercise. You are building your Positive No muscle. With daily exercise, that muscle will get stronger and stronger. With practice and reflection, anyone can improve greatly at the art of saying No.”

Wishing you success with delivering your Positive No!

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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