Do you often say yes because you feel bad saying no, and end up feeling miserable for having said yes? While it’s certainly not easy to say no, I’ve learnt over the years that it’s necessary. And the good news is, the more you say it, the easier it becomes.
Parenting a two-year-old, whose most used word seemed to be the word no, made me realise that we often associate saying no with being impolite, rude, and selfish and that we are brought up feeling guilty and ashamed for saying no. No wonder that many years down the road, we feel reluctant to say no for fear of coming across as uncaring / unkind / unsupportive / unhelpful. We worry that saying no will hurt / disappoint / damage a relationship. Saying yes, on the other hand, seems the easiest way out of a potential conflict.
But no matter how hard it is to say no, the reality is that time is finite, and we need to make choices on how we use it. Juggling romance / parenthood / friendships / work / health / spirituality or anything else that is important to you requires daily adjustments and decisions to be made to stay in balance. As Steve Jobs said, “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important”. One key question I ask myself to decide whether I can afford the time to do something, whether requested by someone or self-imposed, is whether it supports one of my professional goals, personal aspirations, and values.
But being time-poor is not the only reason to make saying no part of our vocabulary, our peace of mind and sanity is another valid reason. As Paulo Coelho put it, “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.” A few months back, a friend of a relative of mine asked to stay over at our place with a friend of hers during their time in Singapore, which was during our son’s school exams. With no spare room to offer, I had to turn her down in order to respect my son’s need for quietness. In exchange, I suggested a few hotels where they could stay and took them out for lunch and some sightseeing during their stay. It turned out they were both incredibly grateful for our time together. And I felt proud of myself for having turned a situation that could have easily been fuelled with resentment into a pleasant one for all parties involved.
So how to make saying no less uncomfortable?
Practice. Stand in front of a mirror and say the word out loud to yourself. When you feel a bit more confident, practice with people or in situations when there’s nothing much at stake. Gradually challenge yourself.
Be brief. No is an answer in itself. By trying to justify yourself, you just open the door to your justifications being challenged.
Set boundaries. Be clear on your priorities and goals, and don’t compromise on them. In my example above, the nature of the relationships and the timing made it a showstopper to host those visitors. I would have made a different decision for a close relative or at a different time.
Buy yourself time. If it’s too uncomfortable for you to give an answer on the spot in front of your interlocutor, ask for time to evaluate his/her request but make sure to get back to him/her as promised.
Ask for the person’s help. Say your boss asks you to urgently do something you have no time for, ask to brainstorm solutions together: are there other tasks that could be delayed, diminished, or delegated?
Offer an alternative. A few years back, a client of mine, a lecturer, was struggling to write research articles as expected of her job because she was constantly interrupted by the students in her care. We set up 4 students’ walk-in timeslots in her weekly schedule when she would address the students’ requests, outside of these times the students were told to communicate with her through emails. This brought immediate relief and allowed her to carve out time in her schedule for writing research articles. And it probably saved her job!
Don’t lie. You may be caught up in your lie and lose your credibility which will make you hesitate to say no again.
I bet in the beginning saying no will feel uncomfortable, but you’ll get used to it. And remember it’s easier to take back a no than a yes. Saying no is essential to stay productive and keep your self-esteem. Get in touch if you want to learn other strategies to regain control of your time or check my life management coaching program.