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Category: Thought Soup

Insights about life, useful skills, and a few about life in general

Saying “No” when you need to

Saying “No” when you need to

As two-year olds, “no” was our favorite word, and we pronounced it with great confidence. What happened? As adults we take a two-week guilt trip every time we say it in any meaningful conversation. It’s an important word to use, yet we avoid it like lima beans.

A big piece of the problem lies in the idea that saying “no” is not nice. When you get to be a big kid, you learn it’s important to be nice. Nice is more important than honest, fair, or reasonable once we move into adulthood. Nice can be deadly if you’re doing too much.

Being effective with how to say “no” is essential. Life is more vibrant when we don’t take on things that aren’t ours to carry. Saying “yes” to the wrong things doesn’t do right by the people making the requests either. Agreeing to do it because someone else asked you to–when a different approach is needed–is a lie. Lies complicate relationships. This particular lie also takes away that person’s chance to learn to achieve whatever the real solution was. They rely on you instead. You lose. They lose.

The saddest part is that when we do say “no,” it tends to be to those who don’t deserve it, especially ourselves. We say “no” to the fun and “yes” to the work. “No” to what we like and “yes” to what others prefer. (And then we wonder why we are stressed!) We say “no” to the people who deserve our time and “yes” to chores no one else wants to do. We need a better set of rules for this.

Here they are:

Rule #1. Be honest.

Is this really yours to do? If not, who should be doing it? Is that person available? If not, why are you the one asked to handle it? And then there’s the biggie: Is this important enough that anyone should be doing it?

Rule #2. Be authentic.

Do you believe in what you are being asked to do? Do you really want to do it? Is it truly your responsibility? Or is “yes” just easier? “No” takes more courage up front but “yes” takes a lot more time to be finished with the request.

Rule #3. Stay the course.

Even when you know you need to say “no” it’s easy to be derailed by sweet talk. Be alert to the folks who tell you how great you are at whatever they need done. A lot of us believe we HAVE to say “yes” to anyone who asks nicely. Not really. We just need to say “no” nicely.

And that’s the other part of this.The courage to say “no” often doesn’t come until we are at the boiling point.  Then “no” is lobbed like a hand grenade. Saying it as “the last straw’” often has catastrophic results. The big fight that results just isn’t worth it.  Too long delayed,“no’” is almost always part of a major explosion. Not pretty. Not good. But instead of learning how to use the word at the right time, we decide not to use it at all.

Say “no” when you first become aware it’s the right answer. Be specific.“No.I can’t take on the fundraising chairmanship.” (You can add “Sorry” if you want.) Say it gently. “I’d love to do something with you, but not that movie.” And particularly, with kids and teenagers, you have to say it clearly or they will still hear “yes.” “No, you can’t do that” is more effective than “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

What about the situations where the person you have to refuse is difficult? You still have to say it. And you have to learn to say it calmly and with confidence again and again—even if that person is verbally abusive. Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection is a great resource for these situations.(The subtitle is “How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate.”  That pretty much covers the bases.)

Do say “yes” to what’s important. Say “yes” when it makes your heart sing. But “no” is a good answer, too. Believe it and mean it and say it with grace.