How to say ‘No’

How to Say No

As a reformed (well, reforming), people pleaser, the word ‘no’ is a new and brittle addition to my lexicon. Having spent 40 odd years saying ‘I’d love to’ followed by hours of angst over committing to yet another bridal shower/ baby shower/ 2 yr olds birthday party/blind date.. over the last few months I’ve been rehearsing and trying to find delicate ways to say the ‘n’ word. No.

For all those readers who are sitting out their, all confident in yourself and rolling your eyes, spare a moment for those of us with marsh-mellow self confidence. The word ‘No’ to us hypersensitive souls means we risk offending you, you might not like us or consider us uppity, which leads to us spending the next 3 weeks wondering if you’ll ever invite us to anything again, projecting the death of our social network and a funeral attended only by the guy you dumped back in 1996 and a mortician. We say yes not because we’re givers and lovers, generous people (thats the other yes people), but because we’re terrified at what you’ll think of us if we say no.

Even if my gut says ‘not if heaven were offered up on a silver platter and it involved John Slattery’.. I still find myself um-ing and ‘maybe-ing’, and all too often, ‘sure, love to’. I can remember saying ‘no’ on about 3 occasions but mainly I go along with a yes because I don’t know how to say no without it echoing off the walls and making me feel horrible.

Why? Why is no so hard?

I’ve gone on dates I didn’t want, bought crap I didn’t need and attended shit I didn’t need to see. Whats even worse, I’ve probably cancelled more things than I’ve ever been to.. which makes me the flightiest, least reliable person on earth… which in turn drives people nuts. So even when I’m saying yes, I know I’ll be pissing them off later by cancelling. Which I know. And yet I still can’t say no.

Why? Because I want you to like me. I want you to know that I like you, (even if I don’t want to date you or hang out with you tonight). Because I don’t want to offend. Because I don’t know. Because.. because… basically I have no spine. Hey.. nobody’s perfect.

So when I found myself committed to something recently, that I didn’t really want to do.. I decided to actually figure it out and see if I can stop this compulsive ‘yes’ crap once and for all.
God knows, I really didn’t want to see that Star Trek movie.

Emily Post, that purveyor of all things gracious offers an extensive process for saying no. And here I was thinking it was only two letters. Maybe this is why I actually find it so hard.

1. Delay your response in order to weigh your options and then respond.

This is something I can do.. the ‘um, can I get back to you?’.  This works great in delaying the actual no word, and in the delay, you’re sort of building in a potential for a negative response. I’ve managed to use this at work to great effect, even if my delayed response two weeks later is ‘sure’. Probably because I’m not following the other 5 steps…but what when someone is on the phone and needs a response, like, now?

2. Accentuate the positive

I automatically assumed that saying no is negative, bad, ugly, selfish (insert dark and gloomy word that means I’ll never have any friends).. but Ms.Post assures you that you can build a complement into your ‘no’  to make the experience positively enjoyable for the other person.  The chance for a compliment.  ‘I’m really flattered that you asked’ or ‘You know I’d love to’… these sound delightful and I have to say, why on earth didn’t my mother teach me this? I could have avoided a lot of awkward silences over the last 40 years.

3. Give a reason for ‘no’ if possible

Ah, I knew there had to be honesty or fact somewhere. Apparently you can’t get away with all butterflies and unicorns in saying no. You are meant to explain the high level facts of why ‘no’. And Emily sternly warns you ‘No fabrications. Lies come back to haunt you’. Which is where I get stuck. Because sometime the truth is, ‘I just don’t want to’, or ‘I’m an antisocial hermit shut in’ or ‘sitting next to you chewing gum for 3 hours isn’t my idea of fun’. Hmm.. I’m guessing Emily’s reasons for no are a little less selfish and petty. Which probably means ‘ because you’re a thoughtless ass’ is out too. I guess I need some work on this one. And at my advancing age I can always rely on ‘bad back’. Lame but believable.. though not terrible useful if the activity involves lying down. Good job the guys aren’t lining up these days….

4. Be clear about the future

Ah, this is where you lay the groundwork for future invites.  My own personal angst zone. If I say no to this, will I ever be invited to X or Y again? (yes, I have had fickle friends in the past). Ms Post assures me that if I’ve followed steps 1-3, now is the time to set expectations about future invites. ‘But count me in next time’ ‘Maybe next month?’ or ‘I don’t think that its in the cards for us’. Again, here’s where I tend to fall down.. apologizing profusely and finding myself offering to help them move house. And no, don’t ever, ever offer up ‘maybe in 6 months time…’ That’s cruel and unusual punishment whoever he or she is. I’m talking to you, Montana man.

5. Respectfully listen

I love this point in Emily’s advice. She does mention that sometimes, sometimes, saying no doesn’t go as planned. People might be hurt or confused, offended or angry. G-R-E-A-T. So now is the time for you to shut up and let your ‘no’ recipient vent.  See, even thinking about this makes me have to pop a Xanax. But apparently ‘acknowledging the other parties’ feelings’ helps the process. Yep, at this point I’m staring at my shoes like a 4th grader and nodding. Yes, I am a terrible person. I know, awful. Yes, horrid. No, I don’t know why we’re friends… (all in my head of course). Which is when the temptation to change the answer to ‘ oh go on then’ is my usual go to place….but as Emily says, now its imperative to…

6. Stand your ground. 

You had a reason for no (even my selfish and petty ones), so caving to flattery or bullying means you’re probably going to resent a ‘yes’ at this point. And, by my rules, probably cancel last minute anyway. Emily assures me that standing my ground, reaffirming my ‘no’ and smiling is the way to close the conversation. (or look like you’re high). Of course, in my head, I’m being beaten with a pole and the ground has opened into a fiery pit of hell. Which is when passing out helps.  That or instant death.
Because here’s the thing that Ms. Post doesn’t acknowledge. If you’ve worked through her 6 steps – you’ve delayed, accentuated the positive, given a reason, been clear about the future, listened to their response and not budged on your answer… well now you’re probably standing with an awkward silence between you and the other person.. and what do you do then?

Which is typically when I decide it sounds like a fun thing to do and say ‘sure, count me in’. 

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