The Art of Saying NO

If you ask me, there is a large misconception that exists surrounding saying ‘no’ to someone or to something. That misconception branches into a few different thought processes that many of us feel or have felt before:

“If I say no, I will hurt their feelings.”
“If I say no, they will feel disappointed in me.”
“If I say no, it will look shameful.”
“If I say no, they will hold it against me.”
“If I say no, I am a bad person.”

The truth is that none of those scenarios exist because they haven’t happened yet and may not happen at all. How about that?

Everyone is different; you have people who are quiet in nature and you have people who are loud and proud. Then you have people like me who are a little bit of both, and then you have your actual sociopath. Some people can dive right into any situation, while others have to second-guess every move they make. It’s the fact that everyone is so different that you shouldn’t feel afraid to say no because the reaction won’t always be what you expect. However, at the same time, it’s true that because everyone is different, it can backfire at times if you say no. So, it seems I just contradicted myself. Then, what’s the best way to approach this? There are a couple things you need to understand about yourself and the people around you before jumping to that ‘no’. Here is some of my advice:

Are you emotionally saying no?

Really, why are you saying no? The truth is, sometimes we don’t even know the reason because of the amount of emotion behind it. If you have that one parent who is always nagging you, you probably feel like saying no to everything they ask you to do just out of spite. What about when someone you hate asks you for something? You almost want to mock them for it, even if they are asking for the most simplest thing. Here is my favourite: what about when one of your managers (who never appreciates anything you do) consistently asks you to do things for them that are not related to your job? Not only do you want to say no, but it turns out to be an explosive no that lands you in the doghouse. Been there, done that.

ADVICE: Put away the emotion and listen to what the person is asking of you. I know this sounds difficult, but all it takes is some light breathing. If you know you’re hot-headed (like I have been found guilty of being in the past), ask that person for some time to think about it. Now, if your mom is asking you to wash the dishes, asking for time to think about it would be weird. However, if your boss asks you to take on a task and you’re unsure about how you feel, then simply say you’re a bit over capacity at the moment and would like to check your schedule to see if it’s possible. Really, you’re buying yourself some time to think about logically saying no as opposed to emotionally saying no.

What does your track record look like?

We’ve talked about the emotion behind the kind of people you might say no to, but now we need to talk about you. This piece is where a lot of self-awareness is required to really diagnose the type of person you are. Remember when I mentioned that saying no can backfire? Well, let’s say you are prone to being lazy and have a track record of not getting tasks done, then saying no to the next assignment will brand you with a reputation. This goes for family, friendship, relationships, and work. I’m willing to share that I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. When my mom asks me to do something, I somehow forget about it 5-10 times until she has to turn into a beast about it; suffice to say, I learned a long time ago that I’ve been branded as ‘lazy’ at home and therefore cannot afford to say no to new requests. On the other hand, I take my career seriously and not only say yes to almost everything, but I tend to go above and beyond because I just happen to be extra. In the workplace I’ve been branded as ‘highly reliable’, therefore I have some leeway to say no without it backfiring.

ADVICE: Take some time to self-reflect, or if you’re not really that type, ask for feedback! More than likely your family or partner will be more than willing to tell you about yourself. If your friends and colleagues are not total fakes, you’ll get some great feedback from them too. Ultimately, if you have a great boss or mentor, get an idea of who you are to others. No, I’m not saying that it only matters how others see you, but moreover that many of us fail to truly know ourselves and what we project. The first time you truly open your eyes to who you are and what role you play in society, then self-awareness kicks in. Use it to determine when to play certain cards, like saying no.

Does it serve you or does it hurt you?

This is perhaps the most important point to be made, so pay close attention. Controlling your emotions and becoming self-aware are two incredibly difficult things to do, but now I’m going to add in the third piece of the puzzle: looking at the big picture. Sometimes you have to take a step back and think about what your actions speak to. We often think whatever we choose to do only affects us, but 99% of the time we affect everyone around us, even without fully knowing. That’s a bit of a different topic for another day. Here is a big picture example: Your boss, who is arguably useless, asks you to prepare a presentation for the management team to see. You, who despises your boss, desperately want to say no and tell him to do his own dirty work. Then you take a moment to ask yourself, “will it kill me to do this?” It turns out you have some flexibility in your calendar and you know you make an excellent presentation in no time at all. Then you ask yourself, “what do I get out of this?” This is big picture thinking. Putting aside the fact that your boss didn’t have to lift a finger and how much that irks your soul, the next day you end up getting the full credit and praise for this amazing presentation, and a few months down the line you’re on your way to surpassing ‘the boss’. Of course, this is a fairy-tale ending and I’m aware it doesn’t always turn out this way, but the important thing is to align your mind to believe in something bigger and long-term. That being said, sometimes the ask can be too much. If your partner asks you to tattoo their name on your body and it’s something you just don’t believe in, then you have no choice but to say no. Apart from it probably physically hurting you, if something goes against your principles and beliefs, then it doesn’t serve you in the now or the big picture.

ADVICE: Always ask yourself: “Is this for my highest and greatest good?” (I stole that from my trainer, so forgive me if you read this!) Seriously, there is some truth to what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Once we get past the emotions and understand the reputational risk, we should evaluate if pushing past the initial obstacles could be rewarding or if they will send the wrong message. The example above was professional, but what if you were asked to do something loving for a friend? There may be no direct benefit for you today, but think about how it makes you a better person in the long run. Similarly, if you’re asked on a date by someone you really aren’t interested in, but you’re too afraid to say no, then you open yourself and the other person up to more hurt down the line. Take a second to look at not only the short-term, but also the long-term outcome of your actions.

Are you being a good sport or a rotten apple?

I added this piece in at the last minute due to the whole COVID-19 situation and a big revelation I noticed recently. While this is yet another topic for another fine day, the situation has taught us that we all need to work together to ensure we survive this, even if that means doing things as simple as social distancing or staying the hell at home. How does this tie into being a good sport or a rotten apple? Let’s use work again as an example: Your manager comes to you and says, “Hey, I know you’ve been working very hard this week along with everyone else. You’re probably burnt out, but I’ll ask anyway… Can you stay an hour overtime? It would really help us out!” Now, I have two VERY real responses to this: 1) “Hmmm… you know what? I could use the extra money during this time. No worries, I’ll stay,” AND, 2) “No. I have a family waiting for me at home and they’re my priority, so no, I can’t help you.” Guess who just branded themselves? I know what you’re thinking… The family at home IS more important and should be the bigger priority, therefore one shouldn’t be branded for it. The thing you’re overlooking is that your manager and all of your colleagues also have a family at home and chances are they are a priority for them as well. Your manager didn’t ask you to stay for an hour of charity work; you were recognized for your hard work and offered additional pay for an extra hour of it. This is a time when many hands make light work, and again, when you consider the big picture, it doesn’t hurt to be a team player.

ADVICE: Understand when others are depending on you and when you have to choose between being selfish and selfless. If your best friend is demanding you come over to chill and the entire country is in a state of isolation, then you’re not being selfish by saying no. You are in fact being selfless because you are putting the health needs of everyone around you first. Similar to the story above, if your business is essential like mine and you are still able to work, rather than play entitled and stay home, work hard from home or head into the office to show your unity. Saying no to working just so you can be at home like your friends may seem great to you, but think about all of the people around the world who have been laid off and wish they still had an income.

How is your delivery?

Finally, this is what everything above amalgamates into: how you communicate your ‘no’. I’ve struggled with this myself because of emotions and short-term thinking, so take it from me when I say it takes making mistakes and honest practice before you get the hang of this. Let’s revisit the scenario above where the manager asked you to stay an hour overtime. The second response was, “No. I have a family waiting for me at home and they’re my priority, so no, I can’t help you.” If you recall, I mentioned you would be branded for saying this. This is only half-true. What if the delivery was something like this: “Thank you so much for offering the overtime. I really wish I could stay, but I promised the kids I’d be home to cook dinner tonight. If you need me tomorrow, I can arrange to stay later for sure.” Suddenly, there’s no branding. You might be asking yourself why you have to go into that much detail to say no. After all, the boss doesn’t deserve you and it’s your personal business why you can’t stay. This goes back to thinking about the big picture and whether or not the ask is serving you or hurting you. What if your kids forgave you for being home late and ordering pizza because they knew you were out working hard to keep the house functioning? Not only that, but you’ve now shown your boss and workplace that you value having the job despite not being able to stay, so in the end, the house is still functioning. What about the tattoo scenario above? It’s one thing to say “no, over my dead body,” versus, “I love you, but for personal reasons I’m not into tattooing my own body. I’d love to find another way to commemorate our relationship mutually.”

ADVICE: No matter what it is you’re feeling, always take the highroad. You don’t have to be perfect all the time, especially in front of loved-ones, but you’ll find that in your professional life it helps to throw a positive spin on your ‘nos’. This prevents that backfiring and reputation-shaming we all fear so much. Depending on the nature of your personality, this could be an easy adjustment or a big challenge, but like I mentioned above, practice makes perfect (or at least good enough).

Time to take everything above and answer the 5 questions I opened this piece with:

  • “If I say no, I will hurt their feelings.”
    Not if you control your delivery. Use a respectful tone and explain the reasoning behind why you feel the way you do. If someone is still hurt after that, then perhaps you weren’t the problem to begin with.
  • “If I say no, they will feel disappointed in me.”
    Not if you ensure you understand your track record. Self-reflect or ask for feedback to understand how reliable you are to people. If you are consistent with your commitments, no one can challenge your loyalty.
  • “If I say no, it will look shameful.”
    Not if you demonstrate that you are a good sport. This is a combination of making sure your track record is positive and ensuring your delivery of saying no does not seem selfish.
  • “If I say no, they will hold it against me.”
    Not if you leave your emotions out of it. Just make sure you are saying no for a valid reason and not in response to feelings. Then make sure to communicate your reasoning so that everyone is on the same page.
  • “If I say no, I am a bad person.”
    Not if you ascertain whether the ask is for your greater good or if it will harm you. You are not a bad person for choosing to do right by yourself and your beliefs, and no one is allowed to argue with that.

That about sums up my thoughts on this. You might be wondering what prompted me to write about this. To be honest, for a long time I let many of my insecurities prevent me from saying no. If you don’t take control of your life, you can be manipulated and taken advantage of. You also break your own self-worth by not being able to choose what is right for you and what is wrong for you. Saying NO doesn’t have to be seen as rebellious or disobedient; it really is about putting a price tag on yourself and showing the world your value. Take care!

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