I was reading ‘The Guilty Feminist’ recently, and among the many absolute gems in the book was the following:
‘No is often an invoice for respect.’
It was one of those ‘aha!’ moments for me – not because I was new to this concept (I had gradually learned this the hard way over the years) but because it so eloquently encapsulated everything I had learned about the power of saying ‘no’.
In this post I’m going to share my journey from being an endless people-pleaser to gaining the courage to say ‘no’. In the second half, I discuss specific strategies that you can use with difficult clients to assert boundaries and claim back your power.
How I made ‘no’ a part of my vocabulary
The road to enlightenment began in my early twenties. Young and naïve, I threw myself with gusto into the noble concept of love (or what I thought was love) and learned the heart-wrenching lesson that saying ‘yes’ to sex with a boy I liked often meant saying ‘sayonara’ to any hope of ever being in a romantic relationship with him. It’s not right and it’s not fair, but it was the sad reality that I experienced: saying ‘yes’ to sex meant saying a big fat ‘no’ to being anything other than a casual hookup.
So I soon learned to stop saying ‘yes’, and realised this was a very convenient way to sidestep a tonne of messy heartache. I said ‘no’ to any man that wanted to get in the sheets with me who frankly hadn’t earned it (that was a hell of a lot of ‘nos’ and not much nooky, I can tell you!) Yet my unintentional sex drought meant that I stopped unnecessarily plunging myself into despair over boys hardly worth my texts, let alone my tears.
In those early years, while I made some progress, I had only grasped the power of ‘no’ in the very literal sense of saying ‘no’ to physical intimacy. I still had some way to go. My heart was still getting trampled on, so I turned to the wise oracle of the internet to find out what I was doing wrong.
Here I learned that my problem was that I was being ‘too keen’. I needed to play ‘hard to get’ and ‘train’ men to respect me by not accepting their bad behaviour. According to the internet, this would take a guy’s desire from a lacklustre ‘let’s Netflix and chill’ to a full on down-on-one-knee ‘let’s get married’. Something about making me seem like a ‘high value woman’, apparently.
So I stopped being so grateful for the pitiful crumbs of male attention thrown my way and started to hold these men accountable for their behaviour. If they acted shady, inconsistently, disrespectfully, then that was it – no more contact. They were out.
The wonderful side-effects of ‘no’
While initially I employed this tactic to get guys to like me, there were some very welcome side-effects which I hadn’t at all anticipated. First of all, while extremely difficult to do at first, saying ‘no’ began to feel addictive. The heady high that ensued when I firmly asserted my boundaries was utterly intoxicating. As a lifelong people pleaser, I realised that this was the first time in my life that I had put myself first. It was the first time I was saying ‘no’ to other people in order to say ‘yes’ to me.
It felt really powerful, and totally liberating, to shut the door on people that weren’t adding anything positive to my life. Saying ‘no’ to shady behaviour was like saying a big fat screaming ‘YES’ to my own self-respect. To see that in fact I was totally capable of rejecting shitty, flaky, assholery behaviour made me realise that I do have that power, I just hadn’t been exercising it. What a revelation!
As The Guilty Feminist says, ‘Respect, like money, is not given until it is applied for.’ I had been behaving in such a way that did not command respect. By accepting without question bad behavior from men, they knew that they didn’t need to properly show up. Yet I had carried this erroneous belief around that even if I asked for respect, I wouldn’t get it. I wish I had learnt sooner that a simple ‘no’ was all I needed to get people to listen.
Over time, I set myself free from the stifling expectation of being a ‘yes woman’. I stopped saying ‘no’ to get the guy to like me, and started saying it so that I could actually like myself. And the most beautiful part is that with each ‘no’, I added to the building blocks of my self-worth. I’m now in a palace of my own making, built on the solid foundations of self-esteem.
Saying ‘no’ at work
Very fortunately for me, I learned how to have boundaries in my personal relationships long before I needed them in the workplace. Once I started to have my own clients, however, the parallels between bad clients and bad boyfriends was uncanny.
Clients can have the erroneous assumption that simply because they’re paying you for a service, it means that they have ownership over your time and attention. It doesn’t matter how much or how little they’re paying, in their heads there’s a monetary transaction and therefore, you owe it to them to be at their constant beck and call.
It should be obvious that this is absolute bullshit. Aside from the fact that no client could ever afford the hourly rate that your time and attention is actually worth, the client is only paying you for a set number of hours.
In an agency, we’re often servicing three or more clients at once. If all clients had this mentality, it would mean that we would never leave our desks. So each client gets the hours they pay for, and no more. Frankly it’s their problem, not yours, if they can’t afford to pay a higher fee to get more of your time.
If you’re in a situation right now where a client is misbehaving, it’s your job to re-educate them on how you expect to be treated. How do you do this? Simple: you stop tolerating the bad behaviour. You begin to say ‘no’.
Sidenote: a ‘no’ doesn’t need to be rude
When we talk about asserting boundaries, people can balk at the idea because they assume that doing so is being aggressive, rude or confrontational. Well, this may be how some men choose to communicate a ‘no’, but we’re not trying to be those men, are we? They clearly missed the memo that it’s perfectly possible to be assertive whilst still being polite.
Listen girl, you can say no with the sweetest sugar smile. If that makes it more palatable for you to deliver the ‘no’ and for them to receive it, then that’s totally fine. A no is still a no, no matter how much you dress it up with sugar sprinkles and whipped cream.
Saying no to clients
Of course, dealing with bad clients isn’t quite the same as bad boyfriends: you can’t go ‘no contact’ on them and never talk to them again (sadly!). You need to say ‘no’ in such a way that doesn’t disturb the delicate client – agency relationship. Often a way to deal with this is by deflecting, or putting the ball back in their court so they still feel like they’re the one still calling the shots.
Below are some tips on how to say ‘no’ to clients.
Email & calendar
The first easiest step is to use technology to say ‘no’ for you.
You can use your email signature, or an app such as ‘Inbox When Ready’ which automatically adds to your email signature, to communicate that you’re only checking your email at certain times of day. This reduces the expectation from clients that you live in your inbox and will reply immediately.
In your calendar, block out times in the day when you don’t want people to book meetings. For example, every day between 9 and 10am I have a meeting that says ‘No Meetings – Keep Free’. Guess what? I never have a meeting before 10am, which suits me perfectly.
Admittedly, external clients probably can’t see your calendar. Never accept a meeting in the early morning or late evening, as this sets up the expectation that you will do this again. Also never send emails to clients outside of office hours. I tend to stick to emailing between 10 – 5, so they never expect a reply from me before or after this time.
When a client asks for extra work
Never just say yes. It sets the unreasonable expectation that they can ask for more and more work and you will just do it.
In this situation, you give the client the option to decide:
- What other work will be pushed back to accommodate this new task;
- Whether they want to pay additional budget to get more hours to do the task;
- If they want to pull budget forward to accommodate the task (bear in mind though that this means less budget in a later month)
Presenting the client with options (and not just saying ‘sure, we’ll do it!) shows that no, they can’t just get extra work for free, but it allows them to choose how they want to approach it.
Example no: ‘Absolutely! We’d love to help with x. However, as we’ve already planned a, b, and c for the month, we’ll need to push something back to fit this in. How about moving back task c?’
When a client pushes for an unreasonable deadline
No client is worth you stressing your ass off trying to get something done in a crazy time frame. If it’s unreasonable, just say you can’t fit it in. You can also pull the ‘quality’ card, emphasising that if they want the work done to a high standard, they’ll need to allow more time. A client will rarely (if ever) turn around and say ‘I want it done to a substandard in a quicker time’. And if they do, then that’s their call.
Example no: ‘We understand that this is a business priority for you, however this piece of work is very complex. We need to have enough time to ensure we do it to a high standard.’
When a client sends endless emails
When clients send lots of emails, it can be absolutely draining and make it hard to focus on the task at hand. Make it a priority to retrain your client to stop doing this!
First of all, say ‘no’ to their endless emails with your silence. Absolutely do not respond immediately. I’m not saying to ignore your client emails for days on end – a response by end of day or within 24 hours is totally acceptable. Also, only respond at certain times of day (and absolutely not in the early morning or late evening). Utilise the tip above about updating your email signature or using an app to set the boundary for you.
Also, train your client to ask their questions over-the-phone to avoid the endless email back-and-forth. Respond with something like ‘Great question! I’m happy to follow up on this on our next call. Reach out if you have any questions in the meantime’. Clients will often settle for this and be happy to wait till the call to discuss it.
To wrap up
I know it can feel deeply uncomfortable to begin asserting boundaries when you’ve been a people-pleaser your whole life – whether that’s with guys, clients or anyone else whose behaviour is getting in the way of you being your best self. Sadly, I find that women struggle with this a lot more than men. We’re trained by society to be amenable, friendly and passive. It can feel like a heinous transgression of all it means to be female to not just smile and say yes.
However, I promise you that once you start asserting your boundaries, rather than take away from your femininity it actually allows you to fully step up. You have the time, energy and headspace to be more ‘you’ and to bring the best of yourself to the table.
And don’t forget the beautiful palace that you build for yourself, block-by-block, with every ‘no’ you utter and every boundary you assert. This is more than just getting the good guy or teaching clients how to treat you. It’s about reclaiming the best version of you and gifting yourself the respect you so deserve.
Image credit: Meriç Dağli at Unsplash