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Learning to Say No
No. Why is it that one of the most common words in the English language is so difficult to say? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, there are lots of reasons I have a hard time with that one simple word. I get caught off guard. I want to please people. I don’t want to be mean or unhelpful. I don’t want to burn a bridge or miss an opportunity or miss out on something fun. I don’t want people to be mad or upset with me or to speak poorly of me. And so, time and time again, I say yes when I shouldn’t. Often at the expense of something else.
I forget that saying yes too many times makes me feel overwhelmed and stressed-out. It causes me to neglect the rest of the things in my life that I really should be doing and could be doing if I had just said no. Even worse, it makes me resentful of the asker and makes me feel underappreciated and overcommitted.
In my own life, I have found that I have to stay very conscious of what happens when I don’t say no, and even then, it is hard. But I am learning, slowly, that in order to become good at saying no, I have to arm myself with a handful of tools that will help me say no without feeling bad and without upsetting the person doing the asking. They are certainly not foolproof, and I certainly haven’t mastered them yet, but these five guidelines might just help you too.
1. Start and end with a positive. Soften the blow of saying no by including a few positive statements before and after the word no. These positive phrases can help take the focus off the negative and act like a cushion to the one word we have such a hard time using.
Here’s how it works. Begin with a compliment: “That sounds wonderful!” Or, “What a great idea!”
Gently say no: “I’d absolutely love to do this, but I can’t right now.”
Finish with a positive: “I’m so honored you would ask. I know it will be great!”
Sometimes we get so caught up in not wanting to disappoint someone that we forget how powerful an effective delivery can be in any situation, but especially when we are giving bad news. Being prepared and positive (but firm) can greatly increase the chances of our audience reacting positively as well.
2. Don’t answer right away. Before answering a request, let the asker know you will get back to them. It is perfectly okay to say, “I will have to check my schedule,” or, “I have to think about it,” or, “I need to talk with my spouse” before giving a final answer.
Waiting to give an answer is probably the easiest way to begin your journey to effectively using the word no. For me, particularly in the blogging and business world, it is the response I most commonly use. Pausing before answering allows me to gain a moment of clarity, to bounce the request off a few people to get their thoughts and opinions about the situation, and sometimes even to find someone else who is interested. Everybody wins!
3. Change the channel. When the asker is very assertive, aggressive, or good at making you feel guilty, it can be very hard to say no in person. In these cases, try changing the channel. Ask for time to give a response and then respond to an in-person or phone request through a nonconfrontational channel of communication, such as an email or a text message. Having a firm no in writing without having a verbal conversation helps you avoid the trap of back-and-forth convincing, especially when the person who is doing the asking is much more forceful or persuasive than you are. It is also much easier to type no than say it!
4. Refer a friend. When you are asked to do something you are not interested in doing or don’t have enough time to do, it can be much easier to say no by referring someone else who might do the job even better. Most of us know at least one or two people who like to say yes to everything or who love being involved or who are looking to plug in somewhere else.
By providing a name of someone else who may be interested, you can go from being the person who says no to the person who helped. There’s a big difference between the two, and the latter is one both parties can feel great about. Instead of obligating yourself, drop a name and walk away feeling helpful.
5. Let someone else do the dirty work. If you are really struggling with saying no and setting limits, it is entirely appropriate and helpful to enlist the help of others—perhaps a spouse, a close friend, a coworker, or a sister—to advocate on your behalf. Is it cheating to not do it yourself? Maybe, but not always. A mediator can say no for you, explaining that while you really want to say yes, right now there is just no way you can make it work. A friend or spouse might be able to convey just how bad you feel, with fewer hurt feelings on either end.
In the end, a simple, direct no is usually the most effective. It eliminates the expectation of any other possible outcome and quickly frees up both the person asking and the person answering. It allows you to check off the item on your mental list instead of wasting additional thought on it. Even the Bible advocates a direct approach. Jesus, in Matthew 5:37, says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
In other words, be quick. Be considerate. Be confident. But say no.
Ruth Soukup is the author of Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind & Soul, the New York Times best-selling author of Living Well, Spending Less, and the blogger behind the popular lifestyle blog, LivingWellSpendingLess.com.
Publication date: April 21, 2016