Saying no is really difficult. Many of us feel guilty, get defensive, or just can’t do it, cave in and say “yes.” We then spend the entire time that we’re doing whatever it was that we didn’t want to do kicking ourselves and regretting all the things we could have been doing with that time. It’s not easy to feel good about feeling good if you’re doing something that you don’t like, didn’t want to do, or just couldn’t get out of. But still, “no” is so final, so absolute, that we shy away from it. Learning to say “no” will liberate you and free you up to say “yes” when you really want to too.
It’s far easier to create a “soft no” like “I would but we’ve got a lot on our plate right now with Billy being sick…” But there is a power and a freedom to just politely saying no without an excuse, and to meaning it. So when someone nominates you for that committee that sounds awful, for baking cupcakes for the entire grade, for doing the backlog of bookkeeping for the church/charity/neighbor, just say “No thank you.” And then stop talking. At least that’s the goal.
The Most Dangerous Word in the World
Psychology Today did a wonderful article about saying “no” entitled, you guessed it, The Most Dangerous Word in the World. This article explains that even seeing the word “no” causes your body to release dozens of stress hormones and neurotransmitters. This produces an altered state (really!!) that immediately influences and impairs logic, reason, communication and language processing. In fact, the word “no” is considered to be under the blanket descriptor of “negative thinking” along with thoughts of disease, calamity, death, social problems, etc… It really is this big. (Just as an aside, we don’t get this much of a neurological bang with “yes.” In fact the article estimates that we need to have five positive thoughts to counteract the weight of the one negative one. Sigh.)
When you look at the evidence it isn’t any wonder that it’s difficult to say “no.” We are social animals after all. We aim to please.
The Power of “NO” – an Exercise in Boundaries
A couple of years ago TIME magazine did a fantastic article on learning to say “no” without the story, the excuse, the drama (remember the drama? If not refresh your memory about your drama/story here) Letting go of the excuses, the reasons (usually a little bit untrue) why you can’t do something, is absolutely liberating. It’s also really great in terms of creating a solid boundary that then allows you the space to do the things you actually enjoy and value. This article has some great suggestions. One is practice some polite ways, without excuses, to just say no. They suggest:
- “I’m sorry – not today”
- “I can’t this time”
- “That won’t work for me but I’ll let you know if anything changes”
- “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I can’t right now”
It’s still polite, you can smile and say it, but it’s also clearly “no.” Is it easy? Well… no.
Learning to Say “No:” 7 Steps to Help You Get to No Now
This is a learned skill. It’s a life-enhancing, productivity-boosting, boundary-establishing wonder-tool, but it takes a lot of practice and some serious baby steps. Here’s how to get to “no” effectively.
- Consider your priorities. This doesn’t happen when you’re in front of a person asking you do do/be/buy/sell/produce something that you’re not interested in. This happens now, in a quiet space, where you have time to think about what really matters to you. This might be time with your kids, it might be the concentrated productive effort you need to get a big project done, it might be your health. It could be anything, but you need to know what you really, truly value right now because every time you say “yes” and don’t want to, you’re taking away from this thing. This is what saying “no” allows you to protect. This is what you’re building the boundaries around. If you don’t know what matters then you’re not going to work very hard to protect it.
- Make the Commitment to Yourself. You know clearly what is important to you, now it’s all on you to protect it. You have to decide that you’re willing to do some kind of scary personal growth work.
- Practice. Just like everything else, saying “no” takes practice and it’s probably best not to start when your overbearing boss drops another project on your overburdened plate. Or when your pastor nominates you for some great thing that you really don’t want to do. Start by saying “no” to the overly pushy sales person at the department store. Say “no” to dessert, even though the waitress was really nice. Say “no” to your best friend (who already knows you’re practicing and supports you fully). For sure say “no” to the creepy European gentleman who wants to put lotion on your hands in the mall (what is that about?!?)
- Prepare some scripts. So that when you panic, you have something to say. This isn’t anything complicated, it’s the short, sweet, polite “no” that we talked about above. “I’m sorry, I can’t right now” or “Not today, but thank you” are my personal favorites.
- More Practice. Practice using your scripts. Make sure they roll off your tongue easily and with a smile. No excuses, no junk, just “no.” Keep practicing in low-importance situations where the stakes aren’t high either way.
- Be Prepared to Disappoint some Folks, and to Impress Others. There will be times when you will genuinely disappoint someone, and that is hard as a human. The reward, is that you protect the thing that matters most to you. If disappointing that other person matters more than your most valued thing, then go back and say “yes” but 99.9% of the time it won’t. Also be prepared to receive a surprising amount of respect. When you can say a polite, sincere “no” it’s an act of power. It’s also a sign of authority, leadership and personal strength. People notice.
- Find Strategies for the Boundary Pushers. Some people will always push, always. I have a beloved friend who is one of those people who can get me to buy something I’m lukewarm on just because she’s there and shopping with me. Or have another drink I don’t want, or get dessert when I’m already full, or whatever. It’s not because she’s mean, or has bad intentions, it’s because she’s a bucket of fun and I just enjoy her company so much I end up saying “yes” to random crap. The best strategy with her was to confess – I told her I was practicing saying “no” and that I love her dearly, but was going to be saying “no” a lot more and really wanted her support. She stepped up like a champ. Obviously that won’t work with the pushy call from the charity or the neighbor who sells real estate who really wants to list your house, but there will be different strategies for those people. Just single out the pushy people in your life and give it some thought.
Learning to say no can be daunting, but in terms of the payoff it’s the best thing you can do for yourself. It helps to build personal strength, self-respect and positive feelings in your life. Most importantly it gives you space around the things that really matter to you – whether that’s time to do the things you like, money for things that really matter to you, or any other valuable commodity that you are preserving