We’re living in a world that’s always on. Transitioning to a virtual reality this past year changed the way we communicate, and at the same time, gave our colleagues unlimited—and unmitigated—access. The professional demands we used to be able to leave at the office have permeated our private spaces. You don’t have to be a chronic overachiever to fall into the trap of checking your work emails before bed or responding to requests from coworkers during dinner. 

I recently listened to an episode of Glennon Doyle’s podcast on boundaries. I was struck by one moment in particular, when she discussed boundary-setting as deciding (and defining) where your responsibilities begin and end. In other words, when you make a decision, you are responsible for that decision. You’re not responsible for managing anyone else’s reactions to it. 

So, when is it OK to say no? Or, perhaps more importantly, how often do you find yourself saying yes when you should probably be implementing a boundary? How do you become confident in that decision-making?

I was once asked to travel to a speaking event a day early so the organizers could do a tech check. Though the dedicated leader in me wanted to say yes, I knew being away from my family for two nights in a row wasn’t something I was comfortable with. Despite the anxiety, I knew I had to say no. I compromised and offered to come in a few hours earlier on the day of the event so we could do a tech check—and guess what? Everything worked out fine. 

Being able to define a boundary and stay strong in that decision, even while knowing it contrasts with other people’s expectations, takes practice. But the effort is worth it: resilience in the face of judgment is one of the strongest leadership qualities a professional can have. Like many others, my career has been peppered with having to make tough decisions. But it’s my ability to stand strong in those decisions that makes me a leader, despite the opinions and feelings of others. 

3 Ways to Say ‘No’—Without Damaging Relationships

On my podcast, Best Boss Ever, I’ve chatted with business leaders about the challenges of learning to own a decision. As human beings, we’ve all been in a place where we’ve carried the emotions of the people around us. However, as Glennon said in her podcast, we teach people how to treat us, depending on who and what we let pass through our boundaries. Empowerment comes by releasing ownership over other people’s reactions. 

To be clear, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the consequences of our actions—especially when it comes to business. Here are three tips that can help you say no respectfully and effectively:

1. Define your boundaries (and actually talk about them)

One method that can be helpful in creating and maintaining boundaries is to clearly state your “yeses” and “nos.” For example, technology makes it virtually impossible to fully “shut off”—even when the workday is done. In this case, it can help to set a firm schedule and share it with your coworkers, so they know when you’re unreachable. Try not to assume they know you won’t be checking your emails after-hours. Many of my clients assume that others know their boundaries, but people aren’t mind-readers. Instead, tell them directly. Remember that boundaries aren’t universal, so clarity is key.  

2. Collaborate and offer alternatives

We create boundaries for our sanity and to make our own lives easier. Sometimes, though, that means someone else’s load gets heavier. It’s not our job to carry anyone else’s weight, so don’t feel guilty. Still, you don’t want to damage professional relationships with someone who feels like you’re unwilling to go out of your way to help them out. Try offering alternatives that allow you to meet the other person somewhere in the middle. When I was asked to travel to an event a day early for a tech check, I offered an alternative time that would work better for me while still providing the organizers time to fix any mishaps. 

3. Be consistent 

If you create a no-emails-after-work rule, stick to that rule! The minute you break it by responding to an email after-hours, the recipient is going to think you’re reachable. Remember, we teach others how to treat us. If we want our boundaries to be respected, we need to start by respecting them ourselves. 

When Boundaries Become Irrational

While boundaries are important (and critical), we can’t just say no whenever we don’t feel like doing something and say it crosses a boundary. Be mindful of when your boundaries may infringe on someone else’s or are impossible to abide by. Glennon talks a little bit about this on her podcast, referencing boundaries that err on the side of being unhealthy or unrealistic. For example, my work-life boundaries mean I won’t respond to emails after-hours. On the other hand, it would be unrealistic for me to expect coworkers and clients to respect that boundary by not emailing me during those times.

We’ll often feel anxious, upset, or stressed when someone crosses our boundaries. This is a good thing, as it allows us to communicate our needs to that person and reinforce whatever space we need. But it’s also an opportunity to reevaluate the boundaries we’ve implemented. Are they reasonable or realistic? Are they manageable, or are you trying to manage something out of your control?

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to choose: would we rather disappoint others, or disappoint ourselves? Remember, setting a boundary is implementing change for the people around you, and very few people like change. Their negative reactions are not a sign that you’re in the wrong—it’s the opposite. Take it as a sign that you’ve removed yourself from a potentially toxic, or negatively serving, situation. 

Besides, with so much overlap with work and life these days, we could all use a little space.

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