The start of a new year may seem like a strange time to discuss the art of saying “No.” A time when most blogs are talking about making resolutions and planning for the year ahead — a time to say yes to new opportunities and finding solutions for old habits.
But stick with me on this, and you’ll see how saying ‘no’ can often really be the act of saying yes!
Where do we NOT say no when we mean it. Often times we say yes to things we don’t want to do — yes, I’ll grab a bite after work (but really I’m tired and I need to pick up milk and I just want to go home to my cat and take off my pants!); yes, I’ll come to the family dinner (but really I hate the way uncle Dave is always misogynistic and wants more hugs than I’m willing to give, and I’d rather just come when it’s a smaller group of family, and I don’t have to hurt my cheeks by smiling when I’m really ready for a nap!); yes, I’ve got time to fit in that new project you just dreamed up 10 minute ago (but really my docket is full and I have no idea where I’m going to find the time to work on this, maybe in my sleep!); yes, that outfit looks great on you (but if I was being really honest, I’d suggest it in blue instead of yellow and maybe a size up/down)…. okay, that’s what I can come up with off the top of my head, but you get the idea — we often say yes, when no might be our better truth in the moment. That takes a lot of energy! Saying yes when really we want to mean no is tiring and depleting to the spirit. We want to speak our truths. We want to be our authentic self. So what is getting in the way? Is it obligation? Is it the social contract? Do we feel like we have no option but to say yes in these (and other) situations?
The crux of the matter is, we DO have options. There are ways to say ‘no’ politely and maintain integrity. Lets look at how saying ‘no’ might actually be the better response, from the examples above:
Would you like to grab a bite after work? The automatic people-pleasing knee-jerk response of yes here, is really about what we think the other person wants most. But what DO they want? Are they looking to spend time, do they have something to get off their chest, are they looking to build bridges, or do they simply not want to eat alone? Pausing in the moment, saying something along the lines of “ooh, that sounds great, can I get back to you in 15 mins after I check my schedule and check in with people at home?” is a way to let the other person know that you value their request and are going to put some actual thought into the invite. Getting back to them soon lets them know that you see it as a priority in the moment. When you’ve taken that 15 minutes, looked at your schedule, and then turn them down, they’ll know you didn’t just fluff off their invite. And, if you’ve actually looked at your schedule, the best response will be to suggest a different time or event. “Y’know, I looked at my schedule and tonight doesn’t really work for me. Why don’t you swing by my place on Saturday night and we’ll have a home cooked meal, and catch the end of the game?” Giving an alternative option in this situation now turns your no into a ‘yes, later’ which isn’t really a no at all!
A large section of your family is gathering for an event and you’re invited. This one is tough. Obligation to the family is a very strong pull for many. When someone first tells you about the event, they’re not usually asking, it often seems more like you’re being informed of when to arrive and what to bring, not asked whether you’ll be able to attend. “That sounds like a lovely time, let me check my schedule and talk to my partner about their schedule and I’ll get back to you!” is a perfectly acceptable way to buy yourself some time to shape your no the best way possible. Saying no to something that feels like an obligation gets tricky. We’re often expected to clear our calendar in order to attend, since this is when everyone else is available. Many times it is over a holiday date, and you can’t really use work as an excuse. I find in these situations honesty, though sometimes difficult to express, is the best policy. “Look, mom, I’d love to see you and the cousins, but I’ve had a really rough week at work and I just need some downtime this weekend. Let me know when everyone is planning to get together next, and keep me in mind. I’ll do what I can to make the next one happen.” Here you’re saying no, but also yes to the next event. Sticking to your word here might also be tough, but it will yield best results — if you don’t intend to come to the next event, don’t use this tactic.
Here’s this new project I want to put on your plate. Ah, work and expectations. How can you possibly say no to something your superior has brought to the table? This might be the most nuanced no yet. Knowing your limits and setting boundaries is difficult for the best of us, but work can be a whole different scenario. Scheduling your work ahead of time, laying out plans in a daytimer or calendar can really help here. Pull out your scheduler and say “Wow, that sounds like a great project. It looks like I’m full up until May, is there an opportunity for the volunteers/new recruit/co-worker to take on this project, or do you want me to pencil it in for the 2nd week in May?” This is a no-but. No, I don’t have time for it, but yes I can schedule it for later down the line if you really insist I be the one to do it. It takes courage to be able to say no, especially with someone who has more power than you. Practicing on the small things will give you more confidence on the large things. Don’t feel bad if you find yourself saying yes and squeezing the new project into your already packed schedule this time. But let it be an opportunity to plan ahead for the next time — setting your boundaries and maintaining them is a good way to keep your sanity at work!
Does this outfit look good on me? Uh oh, is this a trap! When someone is fishing for compliments, sometimes it can seem like the automatic reaction had better be a yes, no matter how they look. Taking the opportunity to really put some thought into it is actually a much more genuine response. Ask them to give it a spin, so you can see the outfit from all angles and then LOOK at what they are presenting. Ask them how the outfit feels on their body and LISTEN to what they say. After this, be kind but be honest — maybe it comes in a different colour that would be more flattering to their skin tone. Maybe it has a pattern that conflicts with the colour of their hair. Remember that this isn’t about whether the outfit makes them look slimmer or somehow detracts from their disability or mimics a famous person. It might be a question of whether the outfit is gender-affirming. It might be a question of whether the cost for the garment is overshadowed by just how darn good they look in it. When people ask this question, sometimes they want to be talked out of it and sometimes they want to be talked into it. Weigh these things and if the answer is no, find a gentle way to let them know — even a non-committal “hm, I’m not sure about this one, why don’t we put it in the maybe pile and keep looking?” Saying no with kindness, rather than saying yes with expectation will give your shopping companion an opportunity to find the right outfit rather than a coveted outfit that doesn’t flatter them.
When we actively take our time, look at our schedule, and make an informed decision to say no, what we are doing is saying yes to ourselves. Yes to maintaining a balance through scheduling. Yes to self-care around the situation. Yes to time-management. Yes to attention-management. Yes to our own morals, ethics, and greater sense of being in the world. When we leave room in our schedules for the things we DO want to do, without cluttering our time up with activities that only drain us… when we’re saying yes loudly to ourselves we can begin to trust in our own judgement and the saying no to what doesn’t serve us becomes easier over time. That previous knee-jerk ‘yes’ attitude becomes a much softer ‘maybe, let me look into it’ response, where we get to take our time to decide if this is really something we want to commit to.
If you find yourself busy and overwhelmed a lot of the time, this may be your call to take some much deserved time to say No to what you don’t want and Yes to what you do! If you’re struggling or stuck at the starting line, reach out and let’s try this together. We can role-play and see how it might just work out in your favour!