Learning How To Say No
Easier said than done. Shall we try it together…?
Last week a good friend messaged about getting together for dinner. I really wanted to see her, and our plans had already fallen through twice, so I said yes.
Now, after organising to see someone you love, one should feel… Happy? Excited?
Yeah, except I didn’t feel either of those things. I felt nervous, almost sick to my stomach. Because I knew – even as I was messaging her – that meeting for dinner on that particular week was going to stretch me to beyond my capacity. I knew that what I should have said was: no.
I write and coach on priorities. I bang on about how it’s impossible to “do it all”. I’m a broken record when it comes to teaching others to de-prioritise tasks, events and people. I actually often start a workshop with one of my favourite sayings: If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yet clearly, like everyone else, I am terrible at taking my own advice.
My life at the moment is full. I’m working, I’m studying, and I look after my children for half the day (POV: currently typing poolside from my daughter’s swim lesson, hoping my laptop won’t get splashed!) Plus, there’s other stuff, as there is for everyone.
And also, more than ever, I need a bit of time to myself, or with Dan. I need the odd yoga class. I need sleep, to make up for the huge debt I’ve accrued since becoming a mother.
There’s no tiny violin here. My life is busy. Boring! Whose isn’t?
But, if I’m teetering on the edge of overwhelm and don’t have any space for anything else right now, then why did I say yes?
And crucially, does any of this feel familiar to you? Do you also strive to never let others down, and in the process, end up letting yourself down instead?
When I interviewed author Laura Brand, she talked at length about saying no. She no longer says yes to evening plans, because she knows that 99% of the time, if she doesn’t say no then and there, she’ll just end up cancelling later on.
I think this is kind on so many levels. Laura sets and sticks to clear boundaries for herself – i.e. right now I don’t want or can’t incorporate evening plans into my life. But she also takes into account the other person – she’s not wasting their time and effort by agreeing to something that she’s likely to cancel on closer to the time. From the way she spoke, it seems as if saying no comes easily to her, but she’s in the minority, right?
We all know that our personal reserves are finite. We know that if we want to allocate them wisely, we have to say no. We just struggle to actually do it.
Parenting my wilful daughter has given me a new-found appreciation for the word ‘no’. She says it, all the time. Indeed, we all start off in life saying no to everything – it’s one of an English-speaking baby’s most frequent first words, firmly in the top ten, alongside “Mama” and “Banana”. That primordial, powerful “No” that I currently hear so often is the original assertion of the self against the other – of my daughter differentiating herself from me.
But the older we become, the less we try to differentiate and the more we try to assimilate, to please, to fit in. So, the less we say no. And, as our own lived experience of hearing “No” develops, the more we intimately understand how painful a “No” will feel.
In neuroscience there is a phenomenon known as the “Negativity Bias”. First described by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., of Florida State University, it explains that the primitive part of the brain responds more fiercely when we encounter negative stimuli than when we encounter positive ones. It does this to keep us safe – from a survival standpoint it’s more important that we feel and remember painful or frightening encounters, so that we may better identify and avoid them in the future. As philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari explores in his seminal book Sapiens, during hunter/gatherer times, when humans lived and hunted in tribes, a “No” could spell rejection from the group, which effectively meant a death sentence.
But as with so many instances of ancient brain vs modern living, the brain actually makes things more difficult for us here. It is hardwired to respond both faster and more powerfully to a “No” than a “Yes”. And by creating a disproportionate emotional reaction, it stops us from saying “No” regularly in our lives.
No matter how you dress it up, “No” is always a negative stimulus to the brain. And because we know a “No” is going to hurt, we avoid using it. We take on burdens, we agree to activities, we put other people first and believe that in doing so we’re doing the best thing by not “hurting” anyone with a “No”.
But this approach isn’t harmless – when we don’t say no to others, we say no to our own priorities. An outward “Yes” is often an inward “No”. We end up hurting ourselves.
From this perspective, saying no is a matter of acknowledging personal responsibility. It says, “My needs take priority here”. It’s understanding that we can’t have everything in life. It’s a moment of clear choice – affirming that you are choosing you.
I find it helpful to remind myself that saying no now doesn’t mean it’s a no forever. I want to see my friend, and it seems that next month I’ll have a lot more bandwidth/time so I can make plans with her for then instead.
Which is what I was going to tell her… until she messaged saying something had come up and she could no longer make that date.
Basically, I got off scot free!
But obviously, I’m still going to have to say no to more people in the weeks/lifetime to come. So, I’ve done some thinking and trawled through my coaching materials to come up with a few tips that will hopefully help you, and me.
5 steps to saying no (and not feeling bad about it)
1. Get clear on your why. When you know why you’re saying no to something it makes it a lot easier to say it, and stick to it. It’ll help you respect your decision, even if someone else may not. E.g. I’m saying no to evening plans because I need rest at the moment.
2. Replace your automatic “Yes” with "I'll think about it." This approach gives you some time to evaluate the impact of saying yes vs no on your own life. You can then make a decision based on this, rather than on anyone else’s preferences, needs and wants.
3. Practice the conversation. If you need to say no to someone and are feeling nervous, then run through the conversation in your head first. Get clear on your why (see above) and identify the conflict points that may arise.
4. Focus first on the energy-draining opportunities people, activities and demands that don’t feel either important or appealing. Be okay with people thinking you’re selfish or rude. We can’t control what other people think of us, we can only control what we think of ourselves.
5. Say no with kindness and compassion. Make it clear that it isn’t a reflection of their own worth, but rather about you protecting your own resources. Call on that cheesiest of all breakup lines: It’s not you, it’s me.
Do you find it easy to say no? Have any other tips to add? Let me know in the comments below <3
P.s. A coaching question for you… What can you say no to today to make your life better tomorrow?
I love this! Resonates with me a lot.