Does this sound familiar?
A friend I'll call "Ed" kept pushing me to contribute to my school's alumni fund. The more he called me, the more stubborn I felt that my answer was, "No."
I felt that not only did I lack the money necessary to contribute in order to make a true difference, but I also knew whatever I could give would be paltry in relation to what the fund had already accumulated.
Finally, Ed said, “You’re the only person who hasn't said yes.”
Maybe that was the truth. Maybe not. Knowing Ed — and his narcissistic ego — I sensed his motivation behind so actively pursuing my contribution had more to do with his desire to be able to say he got 100% of our class to contribute.
So I said, “I guess that’s the way we’ll have to leave it."
We all receive unwanted requests from time to time. Some deal with money. Some deal with our precious time. Maybe you're more generous than I was, or maybe you're less stubborn. Your response may vary according to the situation, and whether or not you currently possess the resources, abilities, or time needed to oblige.
Here is a simple two-step process to identify how and when to confidently say, "NO."
1. Identify the driving motivational tendencies beneath your difficulty saying no.
In general, women (particularly heterosexual women) find it more difficult to say no than do most men. Women are more concerned about hurting others’ feelings, and are generally more anxious about incurring hostility or resentment from the person asking.
You’ll know immediately that opportunities and issues lie within you as specific concerns and motivations are identified.
One of my closest friends has collected several people she calls her friends. I call them takers, and sometimes narcissists. The relationships she has with these people are one-way streets with aspects of co-dependency — a form of relationship dysfunction in which "one person's help supports (enables) the other's under-achievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health." This dynamic often breeds greater dependency and postpones the other person’s progress, ultimately wearying if not draining the giver.
Too many of my own friendships have been based on such "helping" relationships. Over time, I began to realize how tired I felt being the useful one (if not used), in spite of satisfying my need to be needed, as well as to be seen as a good person. I had to be honest with myself and accept how lopsided these relationships were in order to then wean myself of the habit of forming relationships with needy people.
Now that I have, I'm able to enjoy balanced, mutually generous relationships.
And I’ve learned to request help myself!
Common motivations for those of us with difficulty saying no include:
- Fear of rejection
- Anxiety over the perceived threat of feeling lonely
- Preference for being seen as necessary and needed
- Conflict aversion
- Desire to uphold a self-image of generosity and kindness
- Need for control or superiority
2. Practice the art of just saying no.
My mother used to describe her sister as a doormat before “people-pleaser” became a common term in our vocabulary. When people get used to your being in that role, you can expect continuing requests and even antagonism or resentment when you finally put your foot down. When you receive a response that makes you feel uncomfortable, use it as an opportunity to gather information about the foundation and value of that particular relationship.
Start by allowing yourself time to think before you answer. A simple, "Let me think about your request. I’ll get back to you by ...," is all you need to offer at first.
Next, give meaningful consideration to the request.
Ask yourself the following:
- Do I have the resources, time, and energy necessary to say yes and follow through?
- If so, do I really want to do it?
- How does this request align with or take away from my own needs and priorities?
- Will my involvement truly help this person, or will it serve to perpetuate their negative habits?
- How will I feel if I say yes now and find I can't, or don't want to, comply later?
- What are both the worst and best things that might happen if I say no?
If you reach the conclusion that, yes, your answer is indeed, "NO," say so — politely and firmly.
If the person who made the request persists in asking you to reconsider, suggest alternative, comparable means of assistance — once. After which, simply repeat your refusal in a firm, pleasant manner as many times as necessary.
When the request comes as part of someone's pattern of reliance on you, insist on setting a time and place to discuss the situation. Before that conversation takes place, take time to organize and clarify your responses, and well as to identify the outcome you would like to achieve.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is the meaning and value of this relationship to me?
- What am I willing to do to (and what am I unwilling to do) in order to sustain and improve it?
If the requestor has authority over you, you can also identify a range of alternatives, ask for clarification of previously agreed-upon priorities that may need re-visiting, or provide an either/or option (i.e., should I do this or that?).
Pay attention to what’s important to YOU and use your own resources well.
Time, energy and financial resources are all precious. Once used, they cannot be retrieved. Every time you say no, you collect opportunities to say yes to yourself and to your own preferences, values, hopes, needs, and goals. Paradoxically, you also increase your opportunities to contribute to others, and possibly to your relationships, when you say no. You allow others the ability to deal with their own issues, become more resourceful in seeking alternatives, and gain respect for your strengths and interests.
To make the time you’ve used reading this article count, decide on your own next actions. Choose one opportunity or situation within the next week where saying no will benefit yourself and possibly someone else. Identify two or three steps you will take to prepare for action. Schedule them — and then make it happen.
Finally, if you feel stuck or occasionally hit a roadblock repeat this personal mantra I’ve developed:
I will be as kind to myself as I am to others.
Ruth M. Schimel, PhD is a Career and Life Management Consultant who helps clients make wise career choices, face fears and move forward, discover their strengths, liberate their authentic self, transform their careers, and fulfill their dreams. For more information, visit www.ruthschimel.com.
You are not alone in facing the challenges of saying yes and no. Even accomplished people such as writer and producer (Grey’s Anatomy) Shonda Rhimes struggle with those matters.