You already have a full schedule. You are always a hairbreadth away from overwhelm. And now you have been asked to do something else. What do you do? Can you just say no?

What if the request is coming from your principal? What if it’s a teacher you are good friends with? My guess is you say, “yes,” and then you try to make it work. Maybe you stay late – and cut out some of your self-care. Yes, it cuts into family and personal time, but you had no choice. Right?

There is always a choice. It’s how you manage it that makes the difference. Something that frequently worked for me, especially with teachers, was asking, “Can we do this differently?” Then I would come up with alternate solutions. It could be anything from changing the date or time that was requested to sending a cart of books and emailing websites if my schedule was booked.

When it came to my principals, I, of course, couldn’t say no—not exactly. Instead, I would let them know that I’d be happy to accommodate them and ask for their advice regarding how to handle the shifts I would need to make to meet their requests. This lets them know that you can agree, but gets their buy-in or support for the things that will have to be dropped or changed.

There was a time I was asked by the secretary to close the library to accommodate a meeting of the athletic directors in our league could meet. I agreed and said I would contact the previously scheduled teachers to tell them they couldn’t come because of this meeting. A teacher complained to the principal. The secretary called me back “to apologize for her mistake.” She said the request was that I close a portion of the library to allow the meeting to happen. This had a double benefit. Not only had I completely acceded to my principal’s request, I also had demonstrated how connected I was to the teachers and curriculum.

As a leader, you may get requests from your state (or even national association) to take on a task. Do you want to do it? How much of your valuable time will it take? When this occurs, pause before responding and do your best to make your decision out of your purpose, priorities, and passion. If it doesn’t match up with these, say no.

In Saying No Is Better Than Saying Nothing, Shari Harley had advice for those times when “no” is the answer you want to give. She recognizes that saying no is hard. She says people often practice avoidance, ignoring the request or saying you will get back on that—and not doing it. That shows a lack of integrity and honesty in your dealings with people, something that hurts relationships.

Harley offers three options. Before exercising one of these, the first step is thanking the person for asking and saying you will give them your response in a set period of time (not too long in the future). Make sure you get back to them after you determine what your answer will be. Then you answer with one of these options:

Option One is to turn down the request but suggest someone else who might be able to do the task. Within the school, this option is rarely open to you. However, when it’s a district request or one on the state/national level, you should be able to recommend a qualified person who could do it.

Option Two is to agree but negotiate a different time. It gives you the opportunity to ask important questions such as by when does this actually have to be done. It enables you to prioritize your time in completing this new task. It may be possible to do an introductory piece and then complete the project at a later date. For example, if the teacher wants to bring in a class two days in a row, perhaps you can go to the class and do an opening to get students started and thinking, and then have them come in a day or so later to actually get to work. (Debrief them on their thinking process to begin the class.)

Option Three is to turn down the request but offer what you might be able to do instead. Ask if that would work. If not, see if you can find some substitution, but don’t change your no into a yes. You have thought the request through. You know it won’t work for you. Don’t push yourself into becoming overwhelmed.

Harley concludes with “keep your commitments.”  Whatever you said you would do, do it. You want people to trust you. Your word must have meaning.

Knowing how and when to say no is a test of your leadership. Don’t answer too quickly – and always follow through.


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