Why 'No' Is the Most Important Word You'll Ever Say

When I started The Protocol School of Palm Beach, I chased every opportunity that came my way. My company was brand new and I needed clients. To grow my business, I said yes to everything.

At first, it was great. My professional network grew and so did my client base. But then I hit a wall. I was exhausted and overcommitted. My calendar continued to fill up, but my bottom line was stagnating.

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I was so busy chasing down every opportunity that I became unfocused. So I took a step back and started to measure what events and activities actually made my business grow. I changed my business model and agreed only to the opportunities that helped me scale my business and I learned to say no to everything else.

So why is one tiny word so hard for most of us to say? It’s because deep down inside, we all want to be liked so we worry that saying “no” will change the way others view us. This can be especially difficult if you're a people pleaser. But before you take on any more responsibilities, here are some guidelines to consider.

Be proactive. When you say yes to every opportunity, your actions become reactive and it can bleed in to other areas of your business. You may become oversensitive to pressure-filled situations and lose focus. Reactive entrepreneurs often become slaves to the demands of clients, employees, investors and partners. Instead of working toward your long-term goals, you could find yourself chasing after every dollar — and undermine your future earnings in the process.

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Develop criteria for events. Make a list of objectives and goals for yourself and your business. When you decide to attend an event or conference, make sure you will benefit in some way by attending. In other words, measure the opportunity cost of your time commitment against the potential ROI.

Negotiate for better opportunities. If someone invites you to attend an event, volunteer to speak at the event as well. Negotiate a date when the majority of participants will be in attendance. Reach for better opportunities whenever possible.

Don’t give away what you can sell. It’s easy to develop a reputation of desperation. If you say yes every time someone asks you to share your advice, you erode the value of your expertise. Your time is valuable. Any time you spend away from your business has an opportunity cost. Don’t make a habit of doling out advice or other free information; it’s your value as an entrepreneur.

Related: How to Agree to Disagree

Practice the polite decline. When you say no to things that won’t help you grow your business or future relationships, you say yes to yourself. You make yourself the priority and you stay true to the direction of your business. If you’re not quite ready to say no in your professional relationships, practice with your friends and acquaintances whenever possible.

Choose clients selectively. If you’ve ever had a difficult client or a customer who constantly complained about fees, you know what a headache it can be. It drains you of time, energy and resources. Particularly difficult clients can be an emotional nightmare and push you to your limit. Look for red flags when you first meet potential customers. If you sense there will be personality conflicts or the scope of the project may grow beyond the initial request, don’t be afraid to say no or recommend someone else.

Saying ‘no’ will make you a better entrepreneur. It requires some gumption to turn down opportunities. Especially in the beginning, a lot of new business owners worry that they’ll never get another client or close another deal. But don’t be afraid to let one opportunity go if it doesn’t feel right. If you keep a positive outlook, you’ll find that another one will come around and take its place in due time.

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The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. She is also the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).

This post originally appeared at Entrepreneur. Copyright 2014.