Monday, May 23, 2011

Learn to Say No, and Instead Say Yes to Yourself.

I was definitely a yes-sayer. I have memories from high school and college that make me both cringe and laugh, and sometimes feel a little sad.  I always made myself available to people for whatever they needed, whether or not it was really important or interfered with my own plans. Saying no more frequently would have made things much better for me, with fewer but truer friends.

By grad school I had recognized it as a real problem for me, and I was determined to learn to say no. I was working towards my Ph.D. in psychology, fortunately, so I had some research available to me that would help me make the change. I knew I wouldn’t succeed overnight, so I set up my plan in two stages.  If you find that you are someone who has a hard time saying no, this plan should work for you, too.

First, you have to learn to recognize when a no is a healthy yes to yourself. When being asked for a favor or offered an invitation, if you immediately wish you hadn’t been asked, then a no might be the right answer for you.   (The point is not to stop caring about other people, but to strike a better balance between what’s best for them and what’s best for you.)

Sometimes, you say “No I can’t” and you get a follow-up “Why not?”   Remember that unless it’s coming from a close friend or family member, you really don’t owe anyone an answer.  “Why not?” is rude and invasive. Bottom line, other people are not automatically entitled to know your business.  If the reason is private, then the ideal answer is perhaps “I beg your pardon?” or better yet, silence.  To get comfortable saying no and not making excuses, try this method:

Stage 1:  Since you probably have a long history of saying yes, you need to start with baby steps. Take a notepad and write down several excuses you will use when just saying “No I can’t” makes you uncomfortable. Memorize them so you’re ready at work. at the party, etc. This is an example of using the if-then method of planning.

If they ask….then I will say.....

Once you are comfortable with Stage 1, in Stage 2 you will be able to leave those little white lies behind. You simply answer the “Why not?” questions with “It’s kind of personal.” This isn’t a lie, because it always is!  Sure, they might get offended.  You might lose some “friends” who have found you useful in the past. But those that remain, and the new friends you make, will respect you more because you do.

Once you’ve mastered Stage 2, something interesting happens.  I noticed this quality first in a professor and mentor of mine at Columbia.  She was confident and secure, and  completely uninterested in justifying her choices to other people.  When asked to do something, she would often simply say:” No, I can’t.”   And that was it.  No one ever asked her “Why not?” She said no and it went unchallenged.  After a while, people just seem to “get” that you aren’t going to be manipulated into doing things, and they stop trying.

Be patient with yourself in this process and you will reach your goal. Remember that it is YOUR time (or money, belongings or whatever is being requested), so put yourself in charge of it!  It’s important to be there for other people, but it’s just as important, if not more so, to be there for yourself.

Good luck with your goal!

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