11/30/22 | Career, Leadership

Stop saying “sorry”. Start saying “no”.

We recently chatted with Fran Hauser, author of The Myth of the Nice Girl, which came out in 2018 and was Audible’s Top Business Book of the Year of 2018, and Embrace the Work, Love your Career, stemming from decades working in senior leadership positions at Time Inc.’s People, InStyle and Entertainment Weekly as well as at AOL and Coca-Cola Enterprises.

Below is an adapted portion of our discussion, capturing Fran’s insights on elevating ourselves by creating boundaries and changing the language we use.

A peer of mine once called me out, “Fran, do you realize you apologize a lot?” I didn’t believe her.

So I went into my inbox and I searched the word “sorry”. Literally hundreds and hundreds of emails came back, and I saw I was apologizing for trivial things that I shouldn’t t be apologizing for. Things like, “I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you,” or “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to attend that,” or “I’m so sorry.” I would even start emails with “I’m sorry”. 

But I realized I could often replace “I’m sorry” with “thank you”, such as “thank you for thinking of me”, and then explaining why I’m heads down working on something, or “thank you for your patience,” or, “thank you for understanding.”

There’s a great Chrome extension called Just Not Sorry created by a female engineer, Tammy Reese, which has been downloaded a half a million times.

Anytime you type the word “sorry”, it alerts you, and asks if you really want to use the word. I used that extension for a full year to wean off of saying “I’m sorry”. 

Coming up with processes is helpful. Rereading emails before hitting send is another practice I use, and I also asked a friend to be my accountability buddy, kick me under the table in meetings, and be there for me. 

I also think about how we use the word “just”, such as, “I’m just checking in.” My initial inclination is to include it, so I constantly go back to delete it. I like to please, and this is one of the downsides of that characteristic – “I’m just checking in”.

The feedback I’d received changed the way I approached communication. It was a huge change for me to acknowledge this is something I do. It’s a speech weakness, it’s not good, and puts me in a position of weakness.  

I posted on Instagram Instagram post on this saying “no” and creating boundaries. Why do we have such a hard time saying “no”? What I learned from women I interviewed for my book is that it’s really complicated. It could be everything from people-pleasing, to FOMO, to coming back from parental leave and wanting to show you can still do it all. For some of us it’s wanting to retain control over the situation and do it ourselves, because we know it’s going to get done well versus delegating it to someone else.

Despite the many reasons, the first step is to understand why you don’t say “no”. For me. it’s people-pleasing. If I get a request in my inbox, my knee-jerk reaction is always to “yes”. Now I check in with myself and ask if I’m saying “yes” because I feel bad saying “no”, or because it’s aligned with my priorities, it’s strategic, or it’s something that will bring me joy? 

Having this awareness before you say “yes” is really important. 

If you do decide that it’s a “no”, your response can be short and sweet. Don’t over explain, or write three paragraphs one why you can’t do something. It’s a line or two, “Thank you for thinking of me,” not, “I’m sorry.”

When I was writing this book, I would say “I’m heads down working on my book, building my business,” or “I’m heads down working on this project, so I won’t be able to participate. But I wish you all the best,” or “I’m cheering for you from the sidelines.” Whatever it is, that’s it. That’s your “no”.

What I like about that is it’s kind, it’s direct, and because it’s so short, you’re not sharing so much information that it gives the other person an opportunity to negotiate with you. The more you share, the more they may try to figure out a way to turn it into a “yes”.

What’s also helpful is communicating that it’s “no” for now. You could say, “This is something that I might be able to fit in. Let’s check back in a month or two.” It doesn’t have to be “no” forever.

It doesn’t have to shut the door on an opportunity, a feeling that often prevents people from really saying “no”. 

There’s a sweet spot between “yes” and “no” – “I can’t do that, but I can do this,” or “Unfortunately I can’t attend the event, but I’d be happy to promote it,” or “I can’t join that committee, but I have an idea of somebody who I think would be great and I’d love to reach out to them on your behalf.” 

Instead of something that could take hours of your time, it’s 10 minutes and you’re still being helpful. 

Lastly, don’t respond right away. Give yourself time to really let it sit.

A couple of months ago I said yes to something because it sounded so neat. An author was writing a fiction book and wanted to base one of the characters on me. How interesting! So I said yes, and since then I haven’t been able to make the time to work on it.

I backed out this past week, and I did it in a kind way. I was honest and I said, “I want to be helpful, but what I’m finding is that every time I try to start working on this project, I end up getting distracted with other things that I have on my plate. I’d rather be honest with you now versus moving too far along in this project.” 

I did offer to find other women that might be good. But honestly I wish I had just said no from the beginning because of all the time that I’d wasted. 

Create boundaries and visualize setting a fence around the things that really matter. Where do you want to be spending your time? Then, when you look at where you’re spending your time and qualify whether the two are aligned. If it’s not, do something about it. 



The Switch Editorial Team.

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