How to Say No

Saying no is painful. Deep inside I’ve just wanted to please the people in my life.  I don’t want to let anyone down.  Even when I muster up the courage to say no, I have a hard time holding my resolve.  I immediately start thinking how the requester will be angry with me or dislike me.  It turns out there is a reason for my dislike of saying no.  As Lauren Moon wrote for Trello, “This is because evolutionarily, it was beneficial for humans to live, hunt, and work together in large groups. Staying within the group increased the odds of survival thanks to shared resources, food, and an easier chance of finding “the one” (as far as dating or mating went back then). As a result, humans (even as far back as hominids) learned to adopt behaviors that were agreeable to a group dynamic. If someone was perceived as hostile or combative, they risked being ostracized from the group and subsequently, its shared resources.” Realizing that I’m hardwired to want to be agreeable and please others is the first step in understanding myself and the struggle to say no.

In Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith’s book, How Women Rise, this is the Disease to Please. As they wrote, “The disease to please can undermine your ability to make clear decisions because you’re always trying to split the difference about competing needs in hope of creating consensus or avoiding giving offense.  This can impair your judgment and leave you vulnerable to manipulation by people who know how to use cult to get others to accommodate their needs.  It can rob you of the capacity to act with authority for fear of disappointing others or making them even temporarily unhappy. It can make you an unreliable advocate or ally because you are so easily swayed.  It can distract you from your purpose, squander your time and talents, and contribute to your general stuckness.” I find this interesting because, to some degree, my inability to say no is impacting how I can be perceived as easily swayed and an unreliable advocate. This is the last thing I want to have happen.  My inability to say no is making me be perceived as weak and indecisive.

5 techniques to saying no:

Be timely.  I find that the longer I wait to respond to a request, the more likely I am to say yes.  So, I’m thinking, well since I haven’t responded to Suzy’s email in the last week, I better say yes or she’ll really dislike me.  I’ve already been a jerk by not responding, I better say yes so she doesn’t kick me off the team.  And even if you still say no, now I’ve put the other person in a bind because they haven’t found another resource for help.  What ever you do, yes or no, respond with your answer quickly.

Be concise. I’ve used this in all sorts of difficult conversations like terminations and performance issues.  Come up with one sentence or two that summarizes succinctly the issue and the action you are taking.  Example: I can’t work on the widget budget at this time, unfortunately it’s not a good time for me. Or Sadly, I can’t be on the marshmallow project team, it doesn’t sound like the right fit for me. I find that if it’s concise and to the point, I don’t hesitate as much, I’m less likely to say things like “um”, and I don’t ramble as much.  When I ramble, it opens the door to saying yes. I also think that being clear and concise is more confident and decisive. 

Be polite. The main reason you don’t want to say no is that you don’t want to be rude.  Keeping kindness in mind is helpful in saying no. As written by Jessi Christian for Flowrite, “People want to feel seen and appreciated, even when you have to deny them their request. So let the other person feel good about themselves! You might have heard of a “shit sandwich” when giving feedback to an employee, but it also works perfectly when you have to say no. A shit sandwich works simply: You start on a positive note (“This sounds like an interesting event”), tell them the bad message (“But unfortunately I won’t be able to attend as a speaker.”), and end with kindness (“I’m sure you’ll have a successful conference in any case!”).  In emails, try not to use abbreviations for Thanks (thx) or Your Welcome (yw) as well.  If you’re turning someone down, make the extra key strokes to be polite.

Be clear if the door is open or closed.   I can remember when I was a Human Resource Professional that there were annual time sucks like budgeting and company wide annual reviews. I wasn’t available for anything additional at all.  Period. But the middle of July was pretty open.  So, if you can’t help out, ever, clearly close the door with Thank you so much for thinking of me. Given my current workload, I’m unable to do a good job on your project, as my other work would suffer. On the other hand, if this sounds like a real career boosting project and, although you can’t do it now, think about leaving the door open with: “I’m unavailable right now” or “I don’t have the capacity at the moment”.  If you want the door open, you may want to spell out what interests you and when you might be available.  

Refer them.  Benjamin Franklin once said that “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” Sometimes I end up with a full plate because the requester didn’t realize there was someone better qualified to answer their question or work on the project.  Think about whether you are the correct person to be working on this.  Is there someone else whose job this is?   As Christian wrote, “A simple referral can be a huge help for your counterpart. Introducing them to another person that can take over the job or that is even more suitable for the task can be worth taking your time, especially with people you work with long term.” See if there is someone better suited to help out.

I think I’ve learned to be more discerning in the last year after retiring from my full-time job.  I recently had a client ask for a time slot on a Friday.  I have tried to keep Fridays free. I hesitated but said I didn’t have any available slots on Friday.  I think if they had pushed, I would have acquiesced, they didn’t.  Sometimes it just takes practice to say no. How do you say no?

6 Cures to the Disease to Please

The disease to please is Habit 8 in the insightful book, How Women Rise. I am a recovering please-you-alcoholic. When I felt trapped in my unhappy second marriage, I was wallowing in trying to be “love and light” to a man who would never be happy. It has taken me five years to realize that, in retrospect, I kept tying my happiness to whether he was happy. I spent years keeping track of my internal list of rules to try and make him happy. No lemon, no lime, steak is too rare, too well done, not too spicy, not too bland, dinner at 6…no at 7…no at 5:46, heat set at 70…no 73…no 68, no dairy except for pizza, nothing vegetarian…ever. I look back and wonder what I was trying to find or obtain. Why did every grunt or disapproving look have such a hold on me? Where was I in that relationship exactly? I had evaporated into a pleasing abyss. Was I his codependent?

Pleasing others is why women are held back from rising in the ranks. When I coach female clients at some point in the coaching engagement, they frequently figure out that they need to be able to say “no”. As Katie Phillips wrote for Talented Ladies Club, “People pleasing isn’t a topic we talk about often, and it may not have occurred to you that you were stuck in the rut of putting others’ needs and happiness ahead of your own.” Tying yourself to anyone else’s happiness is exhausting. If how you are feeling at this current moment is dependent on anything outside of yourself, it’s a losing proposition and, one, you have little, if any, control over.

Six cures to the disease to please:

  1. Delay your response.  As Vanessa Van Edwards wrote, “Here is my favorite anti-people-pleasing phrase: “Let me get back to you.” Or Stop. Just for 50 to 100 milliseconds. This small amount of time is all you need, according to a 2014 Columbia University study, to make better decisions.” So instead of a knee jerk reaction to say yes to a project or meeting or updated slides or making chicken fried steak, delay your response. Frequently in the moment, especially if it’s your boss or unhappy spouse, you are in your limbic brain. When you are in your limbic brain you are in fight or flight or freeze response. Your prefrontal cortex (where you do your best thinking) is shut down. All the blood has rushed to your legs for you to take flight. Give yourself some space and delay your response.
  2. Start small. Say “no” to small things at first. Like watching the basketball game, or the movie, or the Friends episode, or answering the phone, or taking out the garbage or staying up late, or getting up early or scheduling a meeting over lunch, or after five. I think starting in your personal relationships might be easier at first and then move on to your work relationships. It’s easier to say “no” to one more treat from my dog than “no” to my bosses’ demands. My son was home earlier this week and was watching some show I had no desire to watch on my only television. I said, “Let’s watch something else”. He was surprised but we found something else we both enjoyed. As with most things, it seems to start with small steps.
  3. Effective relationships.  This next idea may seem crazy but it is better for your relationships. As Dr. Ilene Cohen wrote for Psychology Today, “I learned that when you do too much for others, you over-function in your relationships, which inevitably leads others to under-function. Though my intentions were good, they ultimately hindered the overall effectiveness of my relationships.” I think of saying yes to so many projects and tasks at work actually doesn’t give my direct reports and coworkers opportunities to learn and grow. As for my marriage, it created a scenario where my ex functioned in a smaller and smaller role as I maintained the scaffolding of the relationship rules. In the end, I was exhausted and the relationship was a figment of my imagination. Strive for effective relationship through an even playing field of collaborative roles.
  4. Be authentic. Aligning with your values and being authentic with your needs and wants is not something many women are brought up with. As Cohen writes, “I came to terms with the fact that we’re all unique individuals. We should be able to act authentically and connect with who we are and what we value, instead of always doing what others want.” Perhaps it was being the mother of a new born child and 4 a.m. feedings, but somewhere after motherhood, I forgot how to prioritize myself. Be authentic with yourself and what your needs, and yes, your wants are. Align with your authentic self.
  5. Don’t. Saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” is so much more empowering.  As Van Edwards espoused, “‘I don’t’ establishes a clear boundary, making you sound much more confident and clearer in your intentions. On the other hand, people who say ‘I can’t’ seem like they’re giving an excuse and might have some wiggle room to give.” I have actually used this frequently as a sober vegan. It’s much more empowering to say “I don’t drink “ or “I don’t eat meat”. Try using “don’t”.
  6. Stop apologizing. My daughter Natalie has admonished me for this many times. “Quit saying sorry!” And, yes, she means apologizing for everything, which I have been known to do. Again, I think this is more frequently part of the female vernacular. As Van Edwards wrote, “The next time you say no, say it with meaning. Don’t apologize because you have to prioritize. Don’t feel bad that you have something to take care of. You are standing up for you; and remember, if you don’t stand up for you, no one else will.” Apologizing is discounting and minimizing your priorities. Stop stepping back from what you want.

I struggle with this every day. I want to do for others. I realize now that pleasing others is in many ways a way to give my power away. To a great degree, it’s implausible to think that pleasing others has an impact on how someone perceives me. Perhaps the most important thing is how I perceive myself. How does people-pleasing impact you?