Over the years, regardless of the setting I've worked in as a therapist, one of the number one issues people want help with is learning to say no and mean it. How do you protect your time and priorities in a kind way? How do you say no, but still stay "nice" or be a team player?
There is definitely an art to saying no firmly and directly to those around us.
Here are three simple steps to say no efficiently:
1. Use the "slow yes"
Jonathan Becher compiled a list of great quotes about learning to say no and one of the best quotes is from CEO Tom Friel: "We need to learn the slow 'yes' and the quick 'no.'"
For some people, this seems obvious. Don't say yes without thinking it through. But for people who blurt out yes, this is easier said than done.
Often, people impulsively agree to things for several reasons. They want validation, they want to avoid conflict, they feel obligated to help everyone or they feel the need to be "nice." So, people will say "yes" before they even think through the consequences of their decision.
I frequently hear the same story: people realize their lives have become too busy, so they cut back their commitments. But then someone talks about a need for volunteers and asks if they would be interested. While their heart is racing, they say yes without even thinking about it. Since there is a need, they will fill it. They will be helpful, and people will be happy.
Then, over time, they begin to think about what they've committed to. They were already trying to cut back, and in a split second, they have added another commitment to their lives, and they don't know how to fix it.
Because it is so difficult to say no after you've agreed to something, the best way to avoid this scenario in the first place is to implement the "slow yes." There are several ways to do this. You can say, "That sounds like it could be fun, but I'll have to look at my calendar and get back to you."
If you struggle with saying yes because of the desire to avoid the conflict from saying no, it may be easier for you to take a few days, calm down, and then politely say, "I'm swamped lately and this isn't a good time for me to add another commitment."
Another technique involves waiting before answering emails or texts. One client admitted that if he immediately responded to his emails, he often impulsively said yes without thinking it through. He found that if he waited a few hours and thought about the situation objectively, he was more likely to respond calmly and could say, "I'm not ready to do that at this time, but I will let you know if that changes."
2. It is okay to change your mind
People who have a difficulty of saying no often struggle with guilt if they change their mind. They realize they currently don't have the time or energy, but instead of telling others their plans have changed, they tell themselves, "You committed to this, you have to do it." They stay up all night to complete a project or run around helping everyone, while their resentment builds.
The truth is very few things in life cannot be changed. There are some exceptions (you may not be able to walk away from a work commitment), but overall, few commitments are completely unescapable. It is okay to tell someone, "You know, I thought I had time for this, but I'm just unable to do it. You will have to find someone else."
Even in a commitment you can't walk away from, there are often ways to resolve that. It is okay to say, "You know, I thought I could do this completely on my own, but it's larger than I thought. I would like to get help from someone else" or "Is there someone on the team that can assist me with this? I want to make sure something this important is done well."
3. Create a catchphrase
If you are saying yes to desperate or unhealthy people, they may try to pressure or guilt you into changing your mind. For example, they may say "But you're the only person who knows how," "I thought you cared about me." However, if you know objectively that you need to say no, stay firm. Don't let your emotions take over your response and stay calm.
People who avoid conflict have a difficult time with this. They may say no to someone, but as soon as the person says, "please stay, I need you" or "I thought you were more committed to this process," they change their mind. Guilt and anxiety consumes them and they say, "You're right. I'm sorry. I'll keep helping you."
If saying no makes your heart race and you find yourself backpedaling or trying to defend yourself, a simple non-emotional "catchphrase" can help. For example, when I worked at a call center, instead of trying to make excuses or defend myself, I was taught to say, "I'm sorry you feel that way." Regardless of how upset I was, I could say that sentence calmly and firmly.
When my friend who was a professor was confronted by angry students, she would say, "It's in the syllabus." If they got upset, she would simply repeat, "I understand you are upset, but it's in the syllabus." If you try to defend yourself and become upset, unhealthy people will sense that you are weakening and keep trying to convince you to change your mind.
If you know the person you are saying no to is unhealthy, prepare yourself with a simple statement that you can repeat even if your adrenaline is going off. "I'm sorry, but I'm not able to help at this time."
These are only a few techniques you can use, but they are a good start. Learn the art of the "slow yes," realize it is okay to change your mind and stay firm.
And always remember- it is okay to say no.