He’s asked you to stay for one more drink, and you know what that means. You’re not ready. What do you say?
Your boss has asked you to stay late to finish the project. You have a get-together with the girls scheduled for tonight. You’ve been looking forward to it all week. What do you say?
He says he’d lend you the money if you were the one asking. It’s not much. He knows you can afford it, and he really needs it. What do you say?
Your mother has called again, for the twentieth time this week. She greets you with, “Have a minute?” before plunging ahead. You consider screening your calls but know you’d never forgive yourself if it were the one time she really needed help. What do you say?
No is tough to say. For some, it’s harder than “I love you.”
Saying no is risky. It puts your relationships on the line. It puts your self-respect at risk, too. You know what the other person will think of you if you say no. So you don’t. And then you hate yourself for it.
It doesn’t take a high school degree to figure out how to ask a question in a way that makes it perfectly clear there’s only one correct answer.
You want a relationship? Then you’ll stay for that extra drink. Otherwise, he might not see you again.
You want to keep your job? Then you’ll stay late tonight. Otherwise, you’ll read about it in your next evaluation.
You want to be a nice person? Then you’ll loan him the money. Otherwise, he’ll make it clear how stingy and selfish you really are.
You want to be a good daughter? Then you’ll listen to your mother. Otherwise, she’ll be so very disappointed in you, after everything she did for you.
Not only doesn’t it take a high school degree, but kids have it figured out by the time they can talk.
My pre-school daughter and I regularly had this conversation.
“No, sweetie. We can’t. We have to do this instead.”
“That’s a mean word! You said a mean word.”
“No! No is a mean word.”
“Sorry, honey, but I’m your mommy. And mommies have to say no sometimes. That’s their job.”
“Well, I don’t like it. And I think you’re being mean. Only mean people say no.”
She’s got it figured out.
Do you feel mean when you say no?
Most of us do.
It feels so very good to give someone something they clearly want. Saying yes makes us feel generous, virtuous, and helpful. We get a huge rush.
But saying yes when your gut is saying no is a different matter.
It doesn’t feel good to say yes to something you don’t want to do, simply because you feel pressured into it.
But it doesn’t feel good to say no, either. Not when you know you’re going to be hassled over your response.
I said no to something once. The email I got got back in reply was the ultimate learning experience—exactly what I needed. To paraphrase, it said:
I’m asking you again to say yes to my reasonable request VERY NICELY. Here are all the legitimate reasons I’m asking you, laid out in bullet point to make your decision easy for you. I can’t possibly see what you hope to gain by saying no, except to make life hard for me. My entire family thinks you’re a horrible person who’s incredibly selfish. But if you just say yes, we’ll put all this behind us.”
Emotional manipulation usually works really well on me. But I picked up some parenting books right around the time my daughter became a toddler. The books spoke about the importance of boundaries.
If you say no, then the answer is no. Don’t be tempted to change your mind, no matter how fierce the tantrum. You will only be teaching your child that throwing a fit will get her what she wants.”
That’s advice for life.
All of us have an inner child inside us. When we’re feeling stressed or vulnerable, our inner child can temporarily take over. We act like children, even though we’re supposed to be grown-ups.
Saying no can provoke a toddler-style tantrum in otherwise reasonable adults. If it worked when they were a kid, they’re going to keep trying.
Don’t feed the toddler.
If an adult negotiates in a fair and reasonable matter, that’s a different story. But if there’s any emotional manipulation at all, stick to your guns. No means no. Pretend the adult in front of you is a toddler in a grown up body, if it helps.
Back in my twenties, I wanted to get certified to serve alcohol so I could apply for more jobs. That one-day server education class opened my eyes. The instructor asked:
“What should you do if a customer asks you to serve them, and you can see clearly that they’re intoxicated?”
Most of us murmured some variation of, “Say no.” It’s illegal to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person.
The instructor shook her head. “Nope. Wrong answer. Anyone else?” As she waited, a sly smile spread over her face. The room was silent.
“You ask them if they want any food. You tell them you’d be happy to serve them after they’ve eaten something. By the time they’ve got their food and finished it, they’ll have sobered up enough that you can legally serve them another drink.”
I never forgot that answer. Not because I ever had any call to use it, but because it exemplified the most important rule of customer service:
If you have to say no, then make sure you present an alternative.
I can’t do that for you, but I can do this instead.”
It works in most situations. If saying no makes you feel mean, then soften your response by suggesting another idea. For example, you might say:
“I’ve really enjoyed tonight, but I’m not ready to go to the next phrase of our relationship quite yet. Let’s get to know one another a little better first. What are you doing Thursday? Want to catch up after work?”
“I understand that you need me to help with this project. I can stay until seven o’clock, but then I’ve got a prior engagement that I need to attend.”
“I understand how much you need that money. I can’t personally help you with a loan, but I’d be happy to look into finding a lending institution that could help you.”
“Thank you for calling, Mom, but I’m in the middle of something right now. Can I call you back later?”
You’re still saying no, but some of the sting has gone.
Learning to say no and stick to that decision has been one of the most valuable lessons of my adult life.
As a woman, I always prided myself on my flexibility, generosity, and helpfulness. I had no clue that the same qualities made me a pushover and potential doormat.
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair once said:
The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
Don’t take the easy route.
No isn’t a mean word. It’s a word that honors our limits. We can’t do everything and be everything for everyone. Sometimes, we will disappoint people. But we will wake up in the morning with our self-respect intact.