Perhaps the hardest two letters in the English language are N and O. When put together, they make a powerful, often uncomfortable statement: NO.
A few years ago, my son's teacher called me up on a Tuesday evening and asked me, point-blank, to be the classroom's Room Mother. I said, without pause, "No." She was taken aback. In fact, she laughed, as if I was joking. She kind of muttered a little and stumbled and then asked a series of questions: Why? What could she do to change my mind? Would I share the responsibility with someone else?
Fast-forward a few years. We've purchased our first home. My kids can finally mark their height on the wall, paint their rooms and settle in. And of course....they want a dog. Well, to be fair, they want two dogs. I waffled on this decision for months. I love dogs. I think my kids would benefit greatly from having a dog (or two). I think dogs need homes and add a certain quality to a home that is otherwise lacking (provided one likes dogs).
In the end, I said NO firmly and with confidence to both of these requests, and thank goodness I did. I've learned, after many years and many commitments that left me haggard and bedraggled, that saying no saves me a lot of pain and drama down the road.
I'm not sure why saying no is so difficult for many of us. I am tempted to think it's gender-based, that saying no is harder for women, but when I think about it good and hard, I'm not sure it's that cut-and-dried. I see the men in my life saying yes when they mean to say no all the time. And they too feel the overwhelm, guilt, frustration and resentment from taking on too much just as much as women.
The 'why' is likely linked to social constructs, how we were raised and a biological need to get along well with the group.
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt: when we're unable to say no, we end up engaging in behavior we find distasteful, having our time managed for us rather than by us, getting run-down and overwhelmed by non-stop demands and feeling resentful toward others when really, we only have ourselves to blame.
None of this is news. So, how can we stop the cycle of dysfunction when it comes to saying yes when we really mean no?
Here are 7 Strategies For Getting to No...and Staying There:
1. Buy Time
When people ask us for a yes, we feel as if we need to respond immediately. We feel the pressure of an in-person request. Even if it's a text or email, people will often follow up before we can respond, demanding an answer. This happened to me recently when I didn't respond to a text message within a few hours. It's unnerving and makes me feel pressured to make an answer on someone else's timeline.
How can we deal with this?
Buy yourself time. Ask for a few hours to think about the request. Respond with a text or email indicating you're busy now but can answer by a certain time. Pause, think and say, "I'd like to give this some thought. I can get back to you by Friday."
Whatever time frame you choose, give yourself a few hours at least to process the request and consider your answer. The more time-consuming the request, the longer your response time should be. You cannot honestly and intentionally process a request from all angles in five minutes or thirty-seconds. Give yourself time.
2. Don't Waffle
I saw this quote a few years ago on tumblr:
How many times have we all done this? I do this pretty much daily with my kids, which means they don't trust 90% of what I say and keep pushing and hounding me until they get to yes. I do this with friends at social functions, when I get invited to a scrapbooking party or multi-level-marketing party, and what I want to say is, "Are you kidding me? No way!"
But instead I say, "Maybe...sure. I'll look at my calendar."
Maybe, or waffling, basically just kicks the can down the road. We only have to deal with it later, and not only is that tedious, but I feel it puts undue strain on relationships. When people have to keep following up with us, it wastes all of our time.
Do not waffle. Do not say maybe when you mean to say no.
3. Ask Questions
Before you say yes, ask key questions, both of the person making the request and of yourself. Again, this requires time and consideration, so you'll likely need to pause before responding.
Some questions that have been helpful for me include:
1. What is the time commitment for this request? Do I have that time, and if I do, is that how I want to spend that time?
2. What is the social commitment for this request? Does it mean socializing in a way I'm uncomfortable with or that is unhealthy for me?
3. Do I want to do this? If not, is there a compelling reason to do it anyway? Sometimes the answer is yes, and then when I say yes, I feel much better because I truly understanding my commitment.
4. What would happen if I say no? Would there be a serious fall-out? Would I hurt someone? Can I live with the fall-out? If not, why? This question often encourages me to explore relationships in a new light, which is never a waste of time.
5. On a scale of 1-10, where does this rank? In Essentialism, Greg McKeown suggests saying yes only when a request ranks a 9 or 10. While this obviously isn't always possible (I have to do dishes and pick up prescriptions and attend functions I would rather not), there are tons of requests made of us daily that are truly choices. When we say yes to all the 5s, 6s and 7s, we don't have time or energy for the 10s!
4. Know Your Priorities
When we have a clear idea of our priorities, we can ask ourselves if requests for our time and resources fit within our overall goals.
For example, I prioritize my health. Basically, if I don't get enough sleep, I am a mess. I am grumpy, depressed and anxious. So, when I get a request that would limit my sleep, I think long and hard before saying yes; mostly, I say no.
I also prioritize family time and slow evenings. But...I have two pre-teen kids who want to participate in activities in the evenings. This has been a huge challenge for me, and my priorities conflict here. I've had to make compromises and reevaluate my priorities on this one, but putting intense thought into my decisions has meant I don't resent saying yes to certain activities that aren't compatible with a slow evening.
Before I sat down and actually wrote out a list of my priorities, saying yes was much easier for me. Now that I have a bar by which to measure a request, saying no is much easier.
Think hard about what you value, what your goals are and where your priorities lie. Then, whenever you receive a request, measure that request against your values/goals/priorities. There is huge clarity in operating from this foundation.
5. Know Yourself
Remember the dog scenario above? The one in which my kids so desperately want a dog, and my husband so desperately wants a dog and I finally said: NO?
I had to get real about myself to make that decision.
I am often overwhelmed as it is with keeping up with family life. As a stay-at-home/work-from-home mother/wife, the bulk of keeping up with our home, schedules and daily life falls on me. I am constantly cooking, cleaning, shopping and hustling to get it all done.
When I'm honest with myself and who I am and what my capacity is at the moment, I realize I cannot take on another living thing to care for. I'm honest about my willingness to train a dog, to train my children to keep up with a dog and to ultimately care for a dog. As much as I want to think I'd be going on daily walks and follow-up with my kids sweeping up dog hair and filling food bowls, I know that I'm already stretched too thin to do any of that well.
When you've got a decision to make, when a request is made that will alter your life or daily schedule or tap into your resources, be honest with yourself about whether or not you can truly take that on. If the answer is no, make peace with that and let the chips fall where they may.
6. Know Your Yes
You have to know what you want to say YES to before you can appreciate the power of saying no. When there is a void, when life lacks purpose, it's easy to say yes to anything and everything.
When we have a purpose, when we know what and why we want to say yes, the no is much easier and less emotional.
This is not about being meagerly or hard-hearted; this is about being discerning with the most important resource we have: our time. Make a list of the things you really want to do in life. Make a list of how you want to spend your time, money and other resources. This will be directly linked to your values, but this list will be more concrete. For example, I try to exercise daily. So, if someone invites me for a hike, I'm likely to say yes rather than if someone invites me to a club for cocktails and dancing at 10PM. I know what I want my life to look like on a daily basis, and when I put all of those days together, I am moving directly toward my goals and living a life based on my values.
When you figure out your yes, the no will seem crystal clear.
7. Honor Feelings
People will have feelings when we say no. I used to get upset about that, and I would either give in and say yes or feel angry with that person for being upset and/or disappointed.
Now, I honor everyone's feelings. I honor the feelings I have that led to the no. I honor the feelings of the person on the other end, who was hoping for a yes.
It's amazing what this does. It diffuses all of the tension and drama. When I told my kids NO about the dog, I explained my reason and acknowledged, ahead of time, their probable disappointment. I really did empathize with their feelings and wants, and I was honest about my own position.
Guess what? No tears. No drama. No upset. They thought a little bit and then said, "Okay. We understand."
Even if they hadn't understood, even if there had been drama, I was prepared for that. I was prepared to appreciate their disappointment and give them the dignity of expressing their feelings.
A huge reason we say yes is to avoid hurting other people or making other people feel bad. But that just means we often feel bad. It's okay for other people to be upset or disappointed. Listen. Empathize. But still feel confident in your own decision.
That's it. These are the steps I go through to say no and to mean it. I used to say no and go back on my word. I used to waffle and say maybe. I used to avoid people, refuse to take phone calls, delete emails and do all sorts of other tactics to avoid confrontation. I used to say a lot of YES.
Over the years, I've slowly build better boundaries, realizing that strong boundaries aren't just beneficial for me but also for the other people in my life. Weak boundaries hurt everyone. Building boundaries is difficult for many of us, depending on our gender, our childhoods or our desire to please and/or avoid conflict.
But in the end, honesty and consistency are so much more beneficial than resentment, overwhelm and anger.
As with any other life skill, saying no and building boundaries is a long road, and I feel like I've just gotten started. I'm curious what everyone else does....does anyone else struggle with saying no? Does anyone else have a little recipe for building better boundaries and feeling a sense of peace about saying no when someone is expecting a yes?
I hope everyone is having a lovely week. It's overcast in my part of the world, so I've got the fireplace going and my slippers on.