“I’m just a girl who can’t say no” sings a character in the musical Oklahoma! Well, she learns to do so – and her reward is that she gets to marry the man she loves. OK, we won’t go there.
But not being able to refuse requests and agreeing to everything because we feel we can’t say no creates stress and misery for ourselves and for the others in our personal and professional lives.
Why do we find it so difficult to say this little word? The difficulty stems from various kinds of fear and anxiety. We are scared that people won’t like us unless we do what they ask. We are scared we will be seen to be uncooperative and unfriendly, even aggressive.
We are scared we will be less well thought of. We worry that saying no to a request will damage our career prospects. It’s hard to say no to someone you’re scared of, or who is senior to you. It’s hard to say no to someone you like.
And when we do manage to blurt out the word ‘no’, we feel we are overstepping the mark and doing something unacceptable. We surround it with so many apologies and explanations and please-don’t-think-I’m-being awful smiles and grimaces that the message is in danger of being lost in a sea of excuses and explanations.
Consequences of never saying no
If we say yes to everything, we end up taking on far too much. We lose control of our time and our lives. We lose sight of our own needs and priorities. Our stress levels rise as the pressure on our time increases and we feel resentful and out of sorts with ourselves for not being stronger. We can also begin to feel angry with and resent other people who we blame for putting us in this position.
What you will gain by learning to say no
If you develop the skill of saying no nicely and appropriately, your life and your relationships will be enhanced. You will
feel better about yourself
be respected by others
show respect for others
be liked by others
be able to make good choices
be able to focus on what is important to you
You are already doing it…
We can all utter the word ‘no’. We use it every day: No thanks, I don’t want a sandwich; No, I haven’t seen that film; No, I don’t think that’s a good idea; No, this bus doesn’t go to such-and-such… So it’s not saying the word that’s the problem. In some situations, with some people, you’re already doing it. You have the ability to say this little word clearly and firmly. You don’t have to learn something new. You already have the skill. What’s difficult is using this skill in all situations, even the most challenging?
…but not consistently
The problem is, we’re not consistent. You might find it easy to say no when your boss asks you to work late, but when your best friend asks if she can borrow your favourite spangly top to wear to a special do and you really don’t want to lend it, the words just won’t come out and you end up asking if she’d like the earrings that go with it as well.
You may have no problem refusing to give your teenage offspring a lift into town because they don’t feel like getting the bus, but find that you just can’t turn down an invitation to dinner with friends.
Perhaps you can quite confidently say no to a request to join a particular group or to help to organise a party or leaving do but when it comes to that nice man at the door selling household goods as part of an unemployment support plan, not only have you got cupboards stuffed full of dusters and ironing-board covers, but the last time he called you practically invited him and his family to stay for a week…
Stop second-guessing other people
You probably worry about what the other person will think of you and assume that you know how your refusal will affect the other person. Now you come to think of it, isn’t that just a teensy weensy little bit presumptious?
We really need to get over ourselves here. A little ‘no thanks’ from us won’t ruin anyone’s life. Probably. Does this mean we don’t care how other people feel? Of course not.
We believe in treating everyone thoughtfully and respectfully. That means valuing them enough to be straight with them.
Take the first step
The first step is to acknowledge and accept that it really, really is OK to say no when you have a choice and your choice is to refuse the request. It doesn’t make you a bad, selfish person. All you are doing is saying no to a request.
The knowledge that what we are doing is OK and that we are responsible for ourselves and our own thoughts and actions, gives us the strength and the confidence to handle requests with grace and honesty.
The rest is just technique, and technique can be learnt.