Tuesday, 2 April 2013

How to Say No

Many of us find saying no difficult.  Often we’re fine in some contexts (we’re able to say no to our children or partner, but struggle to do it with our boss or mum).

There are usually two aspects to the problem:

- We experience inner conflict around saying no to (some) people.

- We don’t know how to say no in a way that is clear but doesn’t cause offence.

Here are 8 tips to help you get the message across.

1.         Listen to your feelings
How many times have you agreed to do something then felt unhappy about it afterwards?  Sometimes our feelings are a really good guide as to what we need to do.  If you feel uncomfortable about saying yes, take that feeling seriously.  Be aware of your ‘request reflex’: are you someone who typically says yes, then regrets it later?

2.         Look at your beliefs about saying no
The number one problem for most people who have chronic difficulty saying no is that they don’t give themselves permission to do so.  Some of us feel guilty if we refuse a friend or colleague’s request for help - we think that to do so makes us a bad person.  If you feel guilty when you say no, try this exercise:

Take a piece of paper and complete the following sentences:

If I say ‘no’ it means that I’m a [………………..] person
If I say ‘no’ the other person will think that I’m […………..]

What do you notice about what you’ve written down?  What might be more positive messages to give yourself about saying no? 

Sometimes our problem is that we care too much about what other people think of us.  It’s normal and healthy to have some regard for others’ views, but those of us who have difficulty saying no often place too much emphasis on being liked by others -  and in doing so we give the other person an inappropriate degree of power.

3.         Talk to someone else
If you’re wrestling with whether you can refuse a particular request, try talking to a friend (ideally one who is good at saying no) and asking for their views on the situation.  Sometimes an outsider sees things much more clearly and objectively.  Sometimes we just need another person to give us permission.
One of my clients visited her GP as she was feeling run-down.  Her GP spent 10 minutes listening to her and gave the following advice: "You need to start saying No".  According to my client, it was the ‘prescription’ from an authority figure (her GP) that gave her permission to start saying no more often.
Once you’ve made up your mind that you want to say no, here’s how to do it:

4.         Offer something else (if you’re happy to do so)
Try saying:

‘I can’t do that now, but I could fit it in next week’.

‘I can’t do 'x', but I’m happy to look at 'y' for you if that would be helpful’.

5.         Empathise
Fake or token empathy is provocative.  It’s the kind of thing you get from demotivated customer-services staff who are using a technique on you - "I’m sorry to hear that, sir…." (said in a slightly sing-song tone).

Genuine empathy often requires us to use our imagination to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  You might say something like:

‘I can see that you do really need some support with this project, but unfortunately I can’t help you with it’.

6.         Play the Broken Record
As the name suggests, the Broken Record technique involves repeating your message simply and clearly.  Two tips on using the Broken Record:
  • It works particularly well when dealing with articulate, quick-thinking or manipulative people who always seem to have a good reason why you should do something for them.  Using this technique relieves you of the pressure to come up with reasons or counter-arguments - you simply stick to your guns.
  • Combine it with genuine empathy.
Here's an example:

Mike: Jane, could you possibly finish this off for me, I need to leave early today?

Jane: Sorry, Mike, I’d like to be able to help, but I want to leave the office at 5 o’clock.

Mike: Oh, it wouldn’t take you a moment Jane, I’m sure you could squeeze it in before you leave.

Jane: Mike, I wish I could be more helpful on this one, and I appreciate that you need to get away early but I want to leave at 5 so I’m not going to be able to help you today.

Mike: But you’re such a fast worker - you’re the one person I can normally rely on around here.

Jane: That’s very kind of you to say so, and normally I’d be very happy to help you out, but I definitely want to leave at 5 today so I’m not going to be able to help you with this one.

7.         You can ask for time to think
Sometimes, particularly when people catch us off guard, we say yes then later wish we hadn’t.  It’s fine to say, in response to a request, ‘Can I have a think about that and get back to you?’

8.         You can change your mind
Don’t view your initial ‘yes’ (which you now regret) as a binding contract.  It’s OK to go back to someone after you’ve reflected and say something like:

‘Yesterday I said I’d be happy to give you extra help with the project.  I’ve had a think about it, and I’ve realised that I was too hasty in agreeing to help. I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to help you after all - I’d be overloaded - and I’m sorry I initially gave you a misleading impression’.

Image from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/help/acknowledgement/index.php