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The Art of Saying No: How To Effectively Screen Opportunities At Every Stage Of Your Health & Fitness Career

By John Berardi, PhD

Reputation Development

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If you’ve reached the point in your career where new opportunities are regularly coming your way you’ve probably considered this quote: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” But is this advice right for you? Let’s find out.

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In previous articles I shared how to use your unique abilities, to serve your purpose, in the context of your values. Leveraging each of these will help you decide which opportunities to say yes to and which to say no to.

However, in this article, which originally ran on the Personal Trainer Development Center, I’d like to add another dimension: Career stages. Because what you say yes to and no to should change as you go through your career.

Career Stage One:
You Have No Opportunities

When I started out, I didn’t have the luxury of saying yes or no because no one was offering me anything. At that time I was begging for someone else to say yes to me. And, if I’m being honest, that’s how it should have been.

Early in our careers, no matter what innate talent we have, we haven’t yet done enough reps to warrant opportunities. Of course we want (and need) them. But why should anyone give us a shot when there are better, more practiced, and more experienced people?

That’s why, at this stage, everything’s a yes. You need the reps, you need the money, you need to figure out what you enjoy doing, and you need to discover what you actually find rewarding, not just what you think you’ll find rewarding.

Career Stage Two:
Your First Opportunities

At this stage people are asking you to do things without your solicitation. Almost everything is still a yes, though, because you continue to need money. You also need skill development and to figure out who you are, what you do best, what you enjoy doing.

The way to do that is to try almost everything and see what works. I say “almost everything” here because you shouldn’t say yes to things that could be reputation-damaging, zero fun, inconsistent with what you believe your goals to be, or inconsistent with who you think you are as a person. Yet, barring those things, 90 percent of the time, your answer is still “yes.”

Career Stage Three:
You Start To Pick And Choose

Here, in the middle of the continuum, you’re learning which things you feel good doing, which you’re uniquely good at, and which you’d like to do more of. You’re also learning which things lead to short-term, mid-term, and longer-term personal or career benefit.

These experiences will build an innate “gut feeling” about your value to projects and your own values. This intuition can help you figure out which opportunities are right and which aren’t. At this stage you’ll start to chase higher financial (or emotional) returns on your investment, whichever are most relevant at the time.

Stage Four:
Almost Everything Is A No

Here you’re getting lots of opportunities and many can start to feel like time-sucking requests. But if you reach this stage, consider how blessed you are. (Especially considering how few opportunities you had at Career Stage One). Let that sink in. Keep in mind that, previously, no one cared about your opinion or wanted your services.

Of course, you’ll still have to turn down most incoming opportunities because the time investment may not help build toward your own big, ambitious goals, or square with your value system and idea of satisfying work.

Reaching this stage means creating a clear, explicit, written-down criteria for what kinds of things you’ll say yes (or no) to. You’ll also have to make the commitment to run each new offer through this filter to make sure you’re taking advantage of the right opportunities for you.

Career Stage Five:
You’re Beyond Saying No

I know this is going to sound ridiculous — ten years ago it would have sounded the same to me — but this stage will feel like someone’s firing opportunities at you with a semi-automatic rifle.

If you don’t have a system in place you could spend every waking minute reading and responding to them. I’m not exaggerating. At one point in my career, after spending a full 40-hour week just evaluating in-bound opportunities (using my criteria from Career Stage Four) and following up with the folks who sent them over, I knew I had to progress to Career Stage Five: I needed to hire someone else to evaluate the opportunities. This is where I’m at now in my career.

Using my already-developed criteria, my team reads through the incoming opportunities, organizes the next steps for the “yes” opportunities, and politely declines the “no” opportunities.

In the end, there may be more stages I don’t know about. As this is the extent of my experience, it’s where I stop being credible. If you talk to someone who’s been successful into his or her 60s or 70s, you may learn there’s a Career Stage Six, Seven, or Eight.

John Berardi's Five Stages of Saying No Change Maker Academy

But How Do I Actually Say No?

Early on, I thought saying no was nuts. But, as my career flourished, and new opportunities flooded in, I had to start. Which is when I made the commitment to learn how to say no the right way, with grace and gratitude.

You might wonder: “Will people think I’ve forgotten where I came from?”, “Will they wonder if I think I’m too good for them?”, “What if I don’t do a favor for this person and I need a favor later?”, “What if they never offer me anything again?”

I encourage you to put those fears aside; they’re unwarranted. For starters, if you take the time to focus on skill mastery and doing exceptional work you’ll only get more future opportunities.

Plus, if you decline the opportunities you can’t accept with gratitude and grace, without burning the bridge between you and the person who’s asking, they won’t disappear.

Here’s how I do that.

How to Say No Gratefully and Gracefully

Step 1: Express gratitude

Even if it’s not the most exciting opportunity I’ve gotten, I still make a point to remember when no one cared about working with me. So the first thing I say is this:

“Thank you so much for thinking about me. It means a lot that you shared this opportunity.”

Step 2: Show respect for their project

Just because I can’t say yes to the project right now doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. That’s why I usually follow with something like:

“Your project sounds really cool, and I’d love to help. However, I’m working on [this other thing] right now, and I have to stay 100 percent focused on it. The truth is, I’m intrigued by [your thing], and I’d love to get involved. But I don’t think I have the capacity to give it the attention it deserves.”

Step 3: Come through for them

Step back for a moment and ask yourself why the person came to you in the first place. Do they need you specifically? Or do they need someone like you?

As much as I like to think I’m special, and no one else can fill my shoes, it’s not true. If someone asks me to speak at an event, and there are twenty other speakers, they don’t need me. They just need a speaker. Or if they ask for a quote in the New York Times, they don’t need me. They need an expert to quote in an article. Whatever it is, I try to give them what they need:

“However, I’d love to recommend my friend Brett. I’m not sure if he’s available, but he’d be awesome for this project. If he doesn’t work out, you might also try Krista or Geoff, they’d be great too.”

Notice how, instead of burning a bridge by just saying no, I’ve built three or four. I’ve built a bridge to them by helping to solve their problem. And I’ve built bridges to Brett, Krista, and Geoff because they’re going to find out I recommended them for an event or an interview or a project they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to do.

Step 4: Keep the door open

In closing, I say something like this:

“I’m really grateful you thought about me for this. I want you to know I never take things like this lightly. If something like this comes up again, don’t hesitate to reach out. I can’t promise I’ll be able to do it, but I’m a pretty connected guy, and I can probably help you find the help you need.” 

I’ve used this script for ten years, and it’s worked well for a simple reason: Even though I’m turning someone down, I’m doing so with grace and gratitude, and I’m helping them get what they need anyway.

What This Means For You

Determine if you want to say yes or no to the opportunity.

Consider your purpose, unique abilities, and values, along with the stage of your career you’re currently in, to see if the opportunity will benefit you or detract from your goals.

If you choose to say no, do so with grace and gratitude.

Express gratitude, show respect, and see if there is a way for you to help solve their problem in another way, such as making a recommendation to another reliable resource. Keep the door open to future possibilities in case your time or priorities shift.

Want To Learn More? Go Deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

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Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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