Why do we say Yes when we mean No? If you have trouble saying No, then you’ll likely recognise yourself in one of the following:
I care more about what other people think of me than how I’m feeling
I have trouble managing feelings of fear or guilt
I’d rather feel exhausted and resentful than dare to be honest
I’m scared that if I’m true to myself I’ll lose the people in life who matter to me
If I’m not a ‘nice’ person, then I’m not sure who I am
Fear not, if this is you! With my guide to saying No in 3 easy steps, you can reclaim your time and energy while still being polite and caring. Read on to see how to do it.
Step one: Prep yourself
Okay, you can’t always know when someone is about to spring a request on you. But if you know that Doug always asks for ‘a bit of spare cash to tide him over’, or you know that when you go to the parent-teacher interviews you’ll be asked to volunteer for the fete, then it’s worth doing some prep work before you see the person/attend the event.
How to do you prep? You decide in advance that you’ll say no to any request. After all, if you actually do want to do what they’re asking, it’ll be easy to change your answer afterwards. So commit to definitely saying No. Make it easy: tell your elf, ‘no matter what they ask me to do, I’m going to say no’. This is a nice, simple rule to follow.
Then, remind yourself of why you’re saying No. Remember that the short term pain is worth the long term gain, and that avoiding the uncomfortableness short term will lead to resentment and stress long term. Recall any times you have said No and how freeing it was.
If you always say Yes, remind yourself of some of the negative consequences that has had – that time you stayed up late finishing a project out of obligation and then made a critical error at work, the time you worked yourself to the bone on someone else’s project and then they took all the credit. Recalling these memories will help to strengthen your resolve.
Obviously, there’s lots of times where requests get sprung on us unexpectedly – and these times are when you’re particularly susceptible to saying Yes to be polite, before you’ve had a chance to really think about what it means to agree to the request.
To change that habit, develop a new habit of never committing when someone first asks you to do something (unless you absolutely love it and don’t want to miss out!).
‘That sounds good/interesting, I’ll have a think about it’
‘It could work. I’ll have to check my calendar/finances and get back to you’
‘Great. I’ll let you know closer to the time if I’m in’
These are positively oriented comments, but they’re not commitments. Even if you are technically free, if you want to spend that time relaxing, then you’re not free – that’s dedicated self-care time!
Step 2: Actually Saying No
Even if you put it off initially, eventually you have to say that word.
Firstly, Practise! Find opportunities to say no – make eye contact with the charity collectors in the shopping centre but refuse their sales pitch, don’t ignore calls from unknown numbers, say ‘no’ when offered more food or coffee etc. (bonus: that one’s good for weight loss too!). Giving yourself practise in these easier situations will help you later on.
When it comes to refusing a request, try to avoid excuses, because that can lead to the other person trying to problem solve your excuse so that you have no more reason to say No. Simple is best.
‘Sorry, but I’m not going to be able to make it/help out this time,’ is sufficient, however I found a great five part formula from Maralee McKee, ‘Manners Mentor’, that I think nicely encapsulates a wonderfully polite way to say No, if your situation (or personality) needs that.
Maralee’s five part formula for saying No
1. Start with a compliment if one fits the situation
2. Give your answer
3. Say thank you
4. Encourage the person
5. Change the subject or excuse yourself
Let’s take a look at how that might sound using the school example from before.
‘Hi Betty, just following up on your request to help out at the fete this year. You’ve been working so hard for the school and I really admire that. Unfortunately I won’t be able to contribute. It was lovely that you thought of me though, and I’m sure you’ll find somebody who’ll do a great job. I must head off now, I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon.’
Thanks Manners Mentor!
Step 3: Managing the Emotional Fallout
Let’s acknowledge it: saying the word No isn’t hard. And now we even have a nice, polite formula to use, saying No nicely isn’t hard either. But what’s really hard about saying No is the emotions that it can bring up. The fear of letting someone down, the fear of not being perceived as nice/helpful/kind, the guilt that comes up after you’ve actually said No.
To minimise these feelings, it helps to be clear on what your values/goals/priorities are. When you know why you’re saying No (i.e. that’s usually because you want your time for something else you value more), you have an internal ‘reason’ to give yourself. That will help you to stay strong and not feel so afraid, or so guilty.
But some negative feelings may still arise, even after you’ve followed all of these steps. It’s a fact of life that sometimes we end up feeling ways we’d rather not. The solution isn’t to start saying Yes (which leads to bigger negative feelings like exhaustion and resentment long term anyway). The solution is to get better at being with your negative feelings, without needing to change your behaviour to make the feelings go away.
Being able to tolerate negative emotions is such an important life skill if you want to live a meaningful, values-driven life.
It means you can stay true to what matters to you and keep your integrity, even when circumstances are difficult.
It means you no longer have to feel guilty when you end up acting in ways that destroy yourself, just to avoid negative feelings short term.
It means you minimise feeling bored, lost and flat – because you know what lights you up, what makes you excited, joyful and satisfied - and you only say Yes to that.
If you want to learn to tolerate negative emotions, I’ve got a great little meditation exercise that you can do. Make sure you’re subscribed to my blog, so you can get access to it when it’s released (in the next few weeks). As a bonus, new subscribers also get access to my values workbook – so if you’re not clear on what your values are, then the workbook will help you out. You can subscribe here!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.