Let’s imagine an all-too-familiar scenario for many:
You’ve planned a day (or maybe even just part of an afternoon) for yourself. You’re looking forward to decompressing and relaxing for a few, precious moments. You deserve a breather, you tell yourself. After all, you work hard for other people! And then, the phone rings. You get an email notification. The kids barrel in, coworkers ask for a “small favor,” or you hear a knock at the door. You can’t say no. And just like that, your entire afternoon has disappeared. Again.
Can you relate? You know you need to prioritize yourself or personal goals but you’ve lost sight of how to do that when it feels as though everyone else needs you first. Or you worry that saying “no” could create bigger problems for you down the line.
We all have to communicate painful or sensitive information at times, with our children, our partners, our friends, or at work. And while it’s important to be a team player, saying “no” is often necessary. Luckily, the delivery can determine how a “no” is received. It’s possible to hold boundaries while maintaining relationships.
The Skill Of The Gentle No
1) There’s often a right (and wrong) time & place to say no
How many times have you spoken too quickly and then regretted it? Take a pause and practice active listening when others are speaking. Then consider your words and whether this is a good time to delve into a deeper discussion. If you determine that the place, time, or emotional bandwidth needed to thoughtfully respond is lacking, learn to “say no” by “delaying the yes.” Use a “place-holder response” such as “I’m going to need to think about this more. Can we circle back tomorrow?” or “Let me check my other commitments and let you know.”
2) Clarify your “no”
One of the most frustrating things for people receiving a “no” are lingering questions about “why” a request was declined. Is the no related to a scheduling conflict? Is it about the activity (I am not interested in sky-diving, even if this request came from my favorite musician or movie star). Is the no related to the person making the request or due to one’s own perceived weaknesses?
Clarify your “no” by providing context, or giving information that provides the person asking under what conditions a “yes” may be forthcoming.
3) Notice your body language and tone
Renowned relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman states in his book The Relationship Cure that only 7% of meaning comes from the words you say, while 38% comes from the tone of voice and speech patterns you use. In other words, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Make sure that your body language and tone of voice match your message. Make eye contact, speak clearly, and avoid sarcasm when delivering your message.
4) Address the intent rather than the request
Sometimes you may truly want to say yes, but your schedule won’t allow it or there are other complicating factors in the way. You may recognize that the request is related to a personal connection (“Do you want to get together for dinner next week?”) Fortunately, a simple “yes” or “no” doesn’t need to be the only answer.
You can use other, truthful answers like, “I would love to, but I’m going to be busy that day,” or “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’ve been so busy that I can’t give the assignment the time and energy it deserves.”
These responses allow you to acknowledge the intention for connection in a request while still saying “no.”
5) Make peace with difficult or uncomfortable feelings
For some, people-pleasing is a way to mitigate the intense discomfort of rejection, judgment, abandonment, or feeling less-than-perfect. But if you learn to sit with those feelings, they may have less power over your actions. Know that it’s normal (and expected) to feel some guilt, shame, fear, and sadness when saying no to a request. Remind yourself that these feelings are part of the process. They don’t indicate that you’ve done anything wrong. Think about it this way: whenever you say yes to doing something you don’t want to do for someone else, you are inadvertently saying no to yourself. Is that fair?
Of course, learning how to stop people-pleasing is one thing. Doing it is an entirely different challenge! Be patient with this process and celebrate small successes along the way. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that means “continuous improvement.” It doesn’t matter if changes are big or small, as long as you’re moving in the right direction.
Soon, that relaxing afternoon we imagined at the beginning of this post won’t just be figments of your imagination, but instead a well-deserved reality!