Reasons We Struggle To Say No
It’s one of the smallest words in the English language. Yet, many of us believe it carries such awesome power that we’re afraid to say it. In those instances when we do manage to say no, we instinctively downplay our intentions, offering excuses and apologies to the requestor.
Why does this tiny word carry such gravity? Why are we so hesitant to utter it?
Most of us were raised to believe that saying no is rude and egocentric. This belief becomes a significant part of our value system. So we spend our childhoods and much of our adult lives trying to live in a way that reflects an image we consider more honorable and respectable.
The result? We end up saying yes to everyone around us, even as we become increasingly frustrated, embittered, and resentful.
You’re about to learn the unhealthy reasons you dread saying no. Recognizing them – some are less obvious than others – is the first step toward freeing yourself from the fallacious belief that saying no is mean, cold-hearted, or selfish.
WE WANT TO AVOID OFFENDING PEOPLE
People often take offense at things that aren’t intended to give offense. An example is hearing the word “no” after they ask for someone’s help.
WE WANT TO AVOID DISAPPOINTING PEOPLE
If you’re like me, you hate disappointing people. You cringe when you see a look of sadness following your words or actions. You shudder at the possibility that you may have been the cause. Seeing that look can make you feel as if you’ve let others down.
WE WANT TO AVOID SEEMING SELFISH
Most of us care how others perceive us. We want to be thought of as good, caring, helpful individuals. To that end, we go out of our way to appear so through our actions.
WE DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS
Think back to the last time you helped someone. I’ll bet it felt good. Your actions or advice improved that person’s day, which was probably a fantastic feeling.
WE STRUGGLE WITH LOW SELF-ESTEEM
Self-esteem is a tricky, slippery thing. Sometimes, we’re confident to the point that we feel we can conquer the world. Other times, we feel utterly insecure. We second guess ourselves to the point that we’re unable to take any action at all.
WE WANT OTHERS TO LIKE US
The desire to be liked is universal. We want others to be drawn to us, to trust us, and to feel better for having spent time with us.
WE WANT TO APPEAR VALUABLE
Think back to the last time you served as a resource for someone. Maybe this person sought your advice about something. Perhaps he or she asked your opinion. Or maybe this individual approached you for information that would benefit him or her in some way.
It felt good, didn’t it? It was nice to be appreciated.
WE FEAR MISSING OUT ON OPPORTUNITIES
Have you ever said yes to your boss because you were afraid that saying no would disqualify you for a raise, promotion, or new responsibilities? Have you ever said yes to a friend because you feared saying no would cost you a rewarding life experience?
That’s the fear of missing out (FOMO for short).
WE SUCCUMB TO EMOTIONAL BULLYING
You’ll occasionally run into people who refuse to take no for an answer. They’ll go to great lengths to compel you to say yes, including using emotional bullying.
WE’RE AVERSE TO CONFLICT
Many folks have difficulty saying no because they struggle with conflict anxiety. They loathe confrontation, and will do just about anything to avoid it. For them, saying yes is a quick and easy way to quash a potential dust-up.
10 Strategies For Saying No (Without Feeling Like A Jerk)
The biggest challenge you face when learning to say no is overcoming the feelings of guilt, fear, and shame that surface when you disappoint people. That’s no small task. In many cases, it requires unraveling years of training.
The good news is, anybody can do it. If you’re willing to apply the tactics
you’ll gradually curb your people-pleasing tendencies. As you say no more and more often, you’ll discover that doing so gives you the freedom to spend your time pursuing more productive and rewarding endeavors.
Strategy #1: Be Direct And Straightforward
Being straightforward when turning down requests doesn’t mean you’re being discourteous. In fact, your candidness is likely to be appreciated by the requestor, who’ll know that trying to persuade your accommodation will be a waste of time. The individual can spend that time more wisely looking elsewhere for assistance.
For example, consider the following two responses to a request for help…
“I don’t have time to help you.”
“I don’t have time to help you because I’m working on a crucial report that’s due in two hours.”
The first response prompts the requestor to wonder whether your refusal to help is a personal rejection. That can lead to a confrontation, which helps neither party.
The second response eliminates rejection as a possibility. Instead, it justifies your decision as reasoned and practical. The requestor may dislike your decision, but will be more likely to accept it at face value.
Strategy #2: Don’t Stall For Time
Stalling is a bad idea for a few reasons. First, it strings the requestor along. It encourages him or her to hold out hope for your help even though there’s little chance you’ll be able to deliver. When the requestor realizes you’re unable to offer assistance, and his or her time has been wasted, he or she is likely to become irritated.
Second, stalling makes you appear indecisive. When you fail to respond with a direct “no,” the requestor may become more assertive, believing you can be persuaded to acquiesce.
Third, stalling for time reduces your productivity by prolonging the situation. It forces you to spend more time than necessary declining the request.
When someone asks you for help, and you know you must turn down the request, don’t stall. Be direct and clear. Doing so may feel uncomfortable. It may even prompt the requestor to respond in anger. But you can’t control his or her response nor the emotions behind it.
Strategy #3: Replace “No” With Another Word
The good news is that it’s possible to decline requests without saying the word “no.” It’s just a matter of finding different ways to communicate the same message.
For example, suppose a family member asks you to take him to the airport. You could simply say no and provide a sincere reason. If he’s sympathetic to your circumstances, that should suffice.
But let’s say you know from past experience that he’s not sympathetic. He’s inclined to hear “no” as a personal rejection, and likely to be angered by it. To avoid this reaction, how else might you decline his request?
Here are a few examples:
I can’t commit to that right now because I’m focused on a high-priority project.”
This response tells the family member that you’re busy and unable to break away from your work.
I’d like to help you, but I’m swamped with this project right now.”
This response lets the family member know that he’s important to you, but there’s a valid reason you’re unable to accommodate him.
Strategy #4: Resist The Urge To Offer Excuses
“I can’t take you to the airport because my car’s in the shop.”
“I can’t help you move tomorrow because I threw out my back.”
“I can’t contribute funds for Tom’s retirement party because I don’t have any cash on me.”
You get the point.
The excuses are an attempt to deceive the person asking you for help. For example, your car is fine, your back is healthy, you have cash in your wallet or purse, you’re planning to leave the office at 5:00 p.m., and your kids haven’t a clue you’re taking them to the movies.
There are two problems with this approach. First, you’re likely to feel guilty for misleading the requestor. Worse, the requestor will probably be able to recognize your deception. Remember, as I noted in Strategy #2: Don’t Stall For Time, none of us are as discreet as we imagine. The result is that we risk earning a reputation for being untrustworthy.
Second, it opens the door to negotiations, which require time and effort. For example, suppose your neighbor asks you to help him build his deck this afternoon. You decline the request, explaining that you promised to take your kids to the movies. He responds by saying, “That’s fine. Can you help me tomorrow?”
Strategy #5: Take Ownership Of Your Decision
In most cases, we actually can help. It’s technically possible for us to do so. We can surrender our time. We can give money. And notwithstanding physical ailments, we can offer our labor. But when we turn down requests, we choose to say “I can’t.”
This response allows us to avoid taking ownership of our decisions. We get into the habit of turning people down without expressing our decisions as a matter of personal choice.
Over time, this gives us the false sense that we’re not in control. We begin to believe that external factors undermine our authority – that our personal decisions aren’t truly our own to make
The good news is that there’s a simple, if not easy, solution. When you must turn down a request or invitation, express your decision as a personal choice. Instead of telling the requestor, “I can’t,” tell him or her:
I don’t want to.”
Give a reason if you suspect doing so will defuse a potentially combative response. (Make sure your reason is sincere and not simply an excuse.) The important thing is that you own your decision.
Strategy #6: Ask The Requestor To Follow Up Later
This isn’t a stalling tactic. Rather, it’s a way to revisit a request when you have more time to think about it. It also allows you to put the onus on the requestor while gauging the urgency of his or her request.
For example, let’s say a harried coworker bursts into your office and exclaims, “I really need your help on this project.” Because you’re busy with your own tasks, you’re unable to accommodate him at that moment. But you might be able to lend a hand later, after you’ve completed your work.
To that end, you respond:
I don’t have time to help you right now. But check in with me after 4:00 p.m. Things will be less crazy then.”
Strategy #7: Avoid Lying About Your Availability
Someone asks you to do something you’d rather avoid. As an honest person, you’d like to tell them as much. The problem is, you fear that honesty is likely to cause him or her to feel offended, upset, or resentful.
So you lie.
For example, you tell the requestor, “Sorry. I can’t take you to the airport because I have a doctor’s appointment.” In truth, you have no plans to visit your doctor. The excuse is just a way to get out of accommodating the request.
It’s a small, harmless lie. You tell yourself that it’s not as if you’re hurting someone. There are far worse sins than lying about your availability.
Here’s how you might express these feelings when someone asks you to take him or her to the airport.
I don’t want to drive to the airport because I can’t stand freeway traffic.”
I don’t want to drive to the airport because the ride, up and back, will take three hours.”
On the surface, these responses might seem impolite. On the contrary, you’re being direct, which shows respect. You’re showing the requestor that you hold him or her in high enough regard to be candid. You trust that he or she will respect your feelings, and honor your wishes on the matter.
But most importantly, you train yourself to trust your own authority. Rather than lying about your availability and feeling guilty for doing so, you develop a strong sense of personal agency. You learn to rely on your own reasoning when deciding whether to consent to, or turn down, requests and invitations.
Strategy #8: Offer An Alternative
No one likes to be left hanging. When you say no, give the requestor another option. It’ll go a long way toward mitigating his or her disappointment at your inability or unwillingness to lend a hand.
If you’re currently helping the requestor with another task or project, options can also take the form of an either-or decision. For example:
John, I’m barely keeping my head above water helping you with Project ABC. I can continue to help you with that one or help you with this new one. But not both. Which one would you prefer me to work on?”
This approach doesn’t only work in an office environment. It works with friends, family members, neighbors, and even strangers. By offering the requestor an alternative, you’re showing him or her that you care. You’re also lessening the requestor’s disappointment at hearing you turn down his or her request.
Strategy #9: Suggest Another Person Who’s Better Qualified
You’ll sometimes receive requests that are better handled by other people. Declining these requests is good for all parties. You’re able to save time, and can focus on your own projects and interests; the requestor receives the specialized help he or she needs; and the person to whom you refer the requestor will have an opportunity to show his or her proficiency.
There are many reasons to refer requestors to other people. For example, you might do so because you know someone who has more experience than you in the matter.