Why? It’s a complex issue but the answer lies in the meanings we attached to the word ‘No’. Those meanings are different for all of us, but there’s one common underlying fear.
Our most basic fear is “people won’t like/love me anymore if I say ‘No’’’. Other versions of this include “they may not ask me/hire me/invite me/talk to me/include me/admire or respect me”. Then we add more meanings such as, “if that happens, I’ll be redundant/irrelevant/a social outcast/unemployable/unpopular/lonely/poor” and so on.
The reality is that other people will think what they think about us whatever we say. If we say ‘No’ in a non-aggressive or non-antagonistic way, they will probably like/love/ask/hire/invite/talk to/include/admire and respect us even more! That’s my experience and, increasingly, the experience of my clients as they practice saying 'No' to their managers, their colleagues, their friends and to their children.
We’ve all heard the adage ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it that counts’. According to communication researcher Albert Mehrabian, 55% of a message received in face to face communication is visual (how you look when you say it, facial expression, body language), 38% is vocal (how you sound, your tone) and only 7% is verbal (what you say, the actual word or words).
Applied to the word ‘No’, imagine saying it with a smile and a light-hearted, friendly tone. “No, thanks.” Or ‘No, I can’t do that today’. End of story. No explanations or apologies. Just a clear, simple response.
There are lots of acceptable ways to say ‘No’ without resorting to white lies or weak excuses. People see through falsehoods and feel much worse about being lied to than being refused.
Often we think we have to soften the message with a reason. Instead of being honest, we make up excuses. “I have something else on that day/evening”. Why? To spare other people’s feelings? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that we are sparing our own feelings about how they might react. If you just say ‘No, thanks’ with a smile and a friendly tone, people may look a little taken aback, but they’ll get over it. That’s not your problem. You also don’t have to suggest someone else for them to ask, to make yourself feel better, unless they ask for your recommendations.
We love to feel needed, though and that’s one of the biggest deterrents to saying ‘No’.
A client of mine, highly sought-after in her field, was constantly asked for professional favours. She was also constantly stretched in all directions, feeling that she always had to comply.
We started by clarifying her priorities. This is a useful exercise to do at any time. It’s very helpful in assessing how you want to spend your time and with whom.
Then she decided to ask everyone to put their requests in writing. This gave her time to consider each on its merits and weigh up whether or not it fitted with her priorities. Once a choice was made, she found it easier to say ‘No’ in writing than verbally. Her next step was to redirect her emails to her assistant, indicating which she wanted to accept and refuse. A lot of people stopped asking, knowing that she was no longer a ‘soft touch’ (you know that old ‘ask a busy person’ thing?) but the ones that still ask now get thorough consideration and often an enthusiastic ‘Yes’. That’s a win/win.
If you can’t say ‘No’ powerfully, you can’t say ‘Yes’ powerfully either. I notice people who admit they are not good at saying ‘No’ often also find it hard to commit to things and stick to their commitments. In other words, they find it hard to say ‘Yes’ too. As a result, their lives are often chaotic and their stress levels high.
I once asked a friend if she would accompany me to the opening of a new business. “No thanks, dear”, was her swift reply, “I couldn’t think of anything worse”. I was a little stunned for a moment at her brutal honesty, but she went on to chat amiably about other things. When the conversation was over, I found myself admiring and even downright envying her. I wasn’t the least bit offended because it wasn’t personal and I didn’t take it that way. Instead, I vowed that one day, I would have the courage to do the same. It may be something to do with maturity – she was 30 years older than me and I do think one worries less about what others think as one grows older.
Managing people’s expectations is a good way to alleviate any discomfort about saying ‘No’. “I think it’s a fabulous design but I won’t be buying one” circumvents your need to refuse an invitation to a sales event. “I love that you enjoy psychodrama so much but it’s not my thing”. “I’ve allocated my charitable donations for this year, so please don’t call me again”.
If you’re caught out without warning and feel that a simple ‘No’ is not enough, just be honest. “No thanks, I’m really tired/too lazy to drive all that way/ up to my neck in meeting a deadline/can’t face a room full of people /don’t enjoy that sort of thing”, whatever is authentic for you at that moment. Having a clear intention not to hurt or embarrass the other person, will always work for you – it comes out in the tone of your voice.
In all likelihood, people will admire you for your honesty and vow that, one day, they too will learn to do the same!