Without the ability to say “no” at times in a way that’s respectful but purposeful, your life and life balance can quickly spiral out of control. Your boundaries end up being defined only by the little gaps of time left over after you’ve fulfilled other people’s requests. It’s easy enough to say no in some situations and with some people, but in cases where there are power dynamics and real feelings at play, even if your goal is to simply turn down plans or decline to attend a meeting, it can be very difficult to do so.
Since stomping your feet and screaming “no!” at the top of your lungs is rarely effective unless you’re a three-year-old on the linoleum floor of a busy supermarket, it may instead be helpful to keep a few simple guidelines in mind as you face social, personal, and work situations that you’d be better off politely declining.
Elements Of An Effective “No”
A great “no” not only cleanly removes the burden you are trying to avoid, but also doesn’t cause collateral damage. It doesn’t leave a bad taste in the recipient’s mouth, and it doesn’t result in more work or obligation for you, long-term. If you’re after avoiding more trouble, follow these simple rules:
Be kind. Remember that you are turning a thing down, not a person. Even if you are declining a social engagement, you are not rejecting the entire soul of the host; you’re saying no to their invitation. Maintaining a compassionate perspective, even as you are turning something down, is more important and more helpful than it sounds. Since our gestures and our expressions speak as loudly as our words, separating the “thing” from the person can help you avoid giving off unintended signals that speak to larger issues. Further, we’re all human and could all use a little extra kindness.
Be simple. There’s probably a straightforward reason that doesn’t require a long-winded explanation. Start there. Pare down to what the recipient needs to hear, not all that you might want to say. Clarity is more important than descriptiveness. Complexity invites further probing and opens the door to debate. When it’s true, citing your schedule is simple enough – “I’m sorry, I can’t accommodate this given my current workload/schedule/social calendar.”
Be truthful. This means no little white lies. In an age where many of us are deliberately choosing to track our movements and minutiae on Facebook, FourSquare, Gowalla, and Twitter, now more than ever your little lies will catch up with you. The Internet is forever, and even if it doesn’t seem to remember what check-in you deleted, some sneaky Facebook friend will. Moreover, in constructing and maintaining half-truths, you are expending needless mental energy that could be better spent doing the things you’ve chosen to do.
What Doesn’t Work
- Conditional no’s and maybe’s
- Deferring an obligation to some unspecified time in the future
- Saying yes now with the intention of cancelling later
Some of the same warning signs of stress or a life out of balance are also signs that you should probably be saying “no” more often. Are you short-changing the time you have for yourself? Is there a mild sense of resentment underlying your attendance at social events? Are you finding yourself needing to give up your nights in order to stay afloat at work for an extended period of time? One way to make sure your needs are squared away before the myriad requests start coming in is by laying out a list of all of the things outside of work and programmed activities that you need time for. Write or type them all out, so that you can get a good look at them. This might look like:
- Time with my significant other in a social environment
- Time with my significant other alone
- Time with just my friends
- My own alone time
As you look at your calendar and consider an invitation, make sure you’ve reserved time for these needs too. Make appointments with yourself so that you don’t forget that you need that time. Think realistically about how much free time you need to cultivate to get that balance right.
In addition to decisions brought about by others that require a choice, there are also numerous interruptions that can rule your attention and throw you out of balance if you don’t consciously decide when they do and do not belong in your life. In effect, these are times when you need to say “no” to yourself. Or to an inanimate object, like a web browser tab, a link, an email about a clothing sale from your favorite designer, or a Tweet with your name on it. There are numerous tricks and applications that can help you maintain better control of your online life – everything from something like Write Room that blocks out other distractions while you work on writing, to KeepMeOut.com, which warns you if you pull up websites on your own personal “do not visit” list. You can even lock out Firefox from creating more tabs.
How about you? When have you had success saying “no” gracefully? What are the obligations you have the hardest time turning down?