How to Say “No” to Others (and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning): Communicating Effectively Part I
“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency: a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tennis is a sport that requires finesse. A good tennis player has more than one kind of shot: sometimes a tennis player needs a power shot where he can crush the ball over the next; at other times, he needs a soft touch where the ball barely glides over. Sometimes he needs a forehand, sometimes he needs a backhand. But, regardless of the shot, he always needs to remember the white lines that make up the boundary of the tennis court. A solid backhand is meaningless if the ball doesn’t go where you want it to go. A perfect shot is only perfect if it stays in bounds.
How we communicate with others also requires finesse or, more precisely, flexibility. We need to be willing to change up our “game” when appropriate. It isn’t enough to be right: you have to be right, in the right way, at the right time, and toward the right person ₁. To use the example of tennis, you have to be aware of the boundaries. No matter how right we may believe ourselves to be, some behaviors are socially out of bounds. Eventually, both rigid tennis players and rigid communicators fail.
This blog and its companion blogs (Making Requests without Making Problems and Dealing with Toxic Personalities) will suggest ways to effectively communicate with others. This skill is sometimes called assertiveness. Being assertive means you can do two things: (1) you can firmly, yet appropriately, say “no” to what makes you uncomfortable; and (2) you can effectively ask for what you need. Although this blog will cover the first skill, neither skill can be ignored. If you can’t say “no”, then saying “yes” is meaningless. And, if you can’t ask for what you need, you’ll end up feeling bitter and resentful when others are unable to read your mind.
If you can’t say “no”, then saying “yes” is meaningless.
No magical words will fix every problem, but the ability to be mentally flexible (change up our communication “game”) is critical: sometimes we need more force behind our words, other times we need a softer approach. Although this makes sense, what keeps most people stuck in a communication rut is fear that others will perceive them as being inconsistent or flaky (if we used a “soft touch” before, then it feels like we should always use a soft touch). As the Emerson quote above suggests, we do not trust ourselves because we are “loathe to disappoint” others who may have become accustomed to a certain style of communication.
Balancing the Seesaw
Communication is about balance. Imagine opposite ends of a seesaw. At one end of the communication seesaw is acting in. To act in means to under-react or say nothing when speaking up would be helpful. This often looks passive and can be based on shame or self-doubt. For example, a person is bullied, but because of insecurity he acts in by saying nothing. On the other end of the seesaw is acting out. To act out means to over-react when a softer approach would be useful. Acting out repels others because we “swat flies with cannonballs.” The aggressive way we express ourselves trumps whether or not our point is valid. To use a different example, a mother overreacts by yelling aggressively at her child in a store—even when a milder response would do. Although acting in and acting out look very different, both responses are “out of bounds” (i.e., too much or too little) compared to what is needed. It is as if the person rigidly insists on one extreme or the other, rather than find a workable balance between the two.
I like the seesaw metaphor because – just like a real seesaw – the amount of force you apply to one end typically produces equal or greater force at the other. The more you act out now, the more likely you’ll be to act in later. The more you act in now, the more likely you’ll be to act out later.
Okay; enough theory. Let me illustrate how this works with a hypothetical story.
Suppose I have a friend named Dave. Dave is a good guy, and I like him. But one day Dave calls and asks for a ride to the airport, “I have a business trip, and it really would help me out. Plus, the airport is on your way to work. It shouldn’t put you out at all,” Dave explains. I would probably agree to take Dave. After all, he is a friend, and doing this favor doesn’t really cost me anything. But let’s pretend this isn’t a one-time incident: soon Dave is calling constantly asking for a ride to the airport. Again, I keep going along because I want to be consistent in Dave’s eyes: I was helpful before and I “loathe” for Dave to see me as less helpful later. Plus, taking him to the airport really doesn’t cost me much.
But an unspoken expectation has now been formed in our relationship. After a few months, Dave calls me up and asks me for a ride during the middle of the work day. “I know it’s a big ask,” Dave explains, “but it would really help me out.” Because I’ve said “yes” so many times in the past, it’s difficult for me to say “no” now. Therefore, I find myself muttering under my breath as I leave during my lunch break to pick up Dave, who I no longer find quite as charming as I did before. But I don’t say anything. I silently hope that Dave will get a clue by picking up on my displeasure and not put me in this awkward position again. Unfortunately, Dave is clueless. He cheerfully keeps asking for rides to the airport at inconvenient times, and the more I say yes, the more difficult it is for me to say no.
This continues until one day I’m about to go to sleep on a Friday night. My cell phone rings, and I instantly feel angry when I see that it’s Dave. Despite my better judgment, I pick up the phone. “Hey. Glad I caught you,” Dave says in that cheery, still-clueless voice I’ve come to hate. “I’m at the airport, and I just got back from a vacation to Hawaii with my family. Can you pick us up?” Now all the resentment I’ve been sitting on for several months boils over, and I act out. “Who do you think you are?!?…” I begin irritably. This feels so good that I keep going, as I wax poetic about what a lousy person Dave is. After several minutes of venting my righteous anger, there is a pause. On the other end of the line, there is a shocked silence. “Hmmm… okay,” Dave says slowly, as if I’m the one who is being unreasonable. “I guess we’ll just get a cab,” he says in a wounded voice. “Good idea!” I say, as I hang up the phone.
This whole story demonstrates the “Yes, Yes, Yes… Screw You!” pattern of communication ₂, and it looks like this:
“Yes” -> “Yes” -> “Yes” -> “Screw You!!!”
Little Resentment Some Resentment BIG Resentment
It is important to note that you don’t have to actually say “yes”; a series of “no comments” can produce the same result. Whether you say yes or simply refuse to comment, your resentment builds. In my hypothetical situation, all my yeses were causing me to feel more and more upset. But, at first, I acted in: I didn’t say anything because of a sense of social obligation and self-doubt. Now all of the mental force that I was using to repress my feelings on one end of the seesaw (acting in) came gushing out as I let Dave have it (acting out). But, unfortunately, my built-up resentment causes me to shoot the ball out of bounds. I use broad labels, like saying a few choice things about Dave’s mother. And even though it felt sooooo good at the time, after I hang up the phone, I start to feel guilty. I don’t want to be “that guy.” You know: the guy who blows up and leaves Dave and his family stranded at the airport. Plus, I don’t want Dave to tell all of our mutual friends, “What happened to Bryan? He used to be a good guy, but now he’s changed.” So I have a choice: relent and pick up Dave (and feel the resentment build again), or stew on it for the rest of the night. This whole experience is likely to be so negative that I may end up saying “yes” again to others as a way of proving to myself that I’m not a bad friend. In other words, acting out sets me up to act in and vice versa.
What we need is a balanced seesaw. And this balance requires me to be aware of my resentment and say something earlier. In order to illustrate this, let’s go back in time. Remember that, at first, I really didn’t mind taking Dave to the airport. He was a friend in need, and it wasn’t really out of my way. But things changed when he started imposing on me to leave work in the middle of the day. This is when the resentment started to build—and this was my moment to say something.
It was my job – not Dave’s – to say something when I was feeling some resentment. This is hard for some people to hear: they seem to believe in mindreading. “But Dave should know better!!” they are quick to say. This argument would be true if all of us were raised in the same environment, in the same culture, and had the same personality, but, since we don’t live in that world, it seems like assuming others can read your mind may not be the best way to go.
What to Do Instead
But what could I have said? At the point where I was starting to feel resentful, I needed to do something courageous by inserting one of three statements:
The table below goes through an example of each of these statements, but timing is everything. I cannot insert one of these statements when my resentment has reached critical mass (“Screw you!”). My resentment will bleed through and none of my “communication skills” will work. Here’s how these three statements may have sounded with Dave:
How to Say No or Set Limits Effectively
|“No” *||Saying no with a simple explanation and without trying to overcompensate later (don’t try to “make up for it” … you didn’t do anything wrong).||
“No. Sorry, Dave. I can’t do it. I have to work at that time. You’ll have to make other plans.” [I don’t try to be ‘extra nice’ to Dave later: What I said was appropriate; there is nothing to make up for.]
|“Yes… but…”||State that you are willing to help this time, but state directly that you won’t be able to do it next time.||
“Yes. I can do it this time, but I can’t do this again. You’ll have to find your own ride to the airport next time. Deal?” [I make sure Dave heard me and that I’m not just dropping hints]
State that you are willing to help this time; however, directly ask the person for something in return. This way we are setting up the expectation of social reciprocity: I scratch your back and you scratch mine.
|“Yes. I can do it this time, and can you mow my lawn this weekend?” [Again, I get a firm commitment rather than dropping hints. Dave may say ‘yes’ because he needs me right now… we’ll see if he follows through later.]|
Again, all three options are based on the assumptions that (1) you’re aware of your building resentment; and (2) you have the courage to say something before it’s too late. This is the best way to reset expectations in a relationship and to balance out the act in/ act out seesaw.
A common objection to the “yes…but” and “yes…and” options is that Dave may choose to ignore his commitment later. But if this happens, it’s much easier to move to a simple “no” when he asks again. Imagine, for instance, that I use “yes…but” with Dave. Sure, I still take him to the airport, but I feel better because I feel less like a human floor-mat. But let’s say Dave doesn’t learn. (After all, he’s clueless.) After a few weeks, he calls again and asks me for a ride, as if the previous conversation never happened. Because of I laid the groundwork with my “yes…but” it will be easier (but not necessarily easy) for me to say, “Remember the last time we talked? Sorry, I can’t do it.” I’ll feel less of a need to justify myself. Dave may be one of those difficult people who still doesn’t get it, but it’s more important that I set good boundaries for myself. Similarly, if Dave doesn’t follow through when I used a “yes…and” (although he said he would do it, he later makes up an excuse so he can avoid mowing my lawn), it will be easier for me to move to a “no” next time. Ideally, all of this happens without me acting out: I’m able to use my communication skills because I’m not stuck in my feelings of resentment.
There are a lot of books you can read that deal with using good communication skills, like using “I feel” statements or having appropriate body language. That is all fine and good, but few of us will be able to use any of these well-meaning skills if we wait until it’s too late. Timing is everything; otherwise, we will crush the ball out of bounds.
Summary of Communication Skill #1: Saying No Effectively
- When a negative emotion like resentment is building, be prepared to say something sooner rather than later. If you’re the one with a negative feeling, then you’re the one with the problem. Don’t punt responsibility by expecting the other person to read your mind (“She should know better!”)
- Talk with the person when you are alone with them. If they want you to make a decision immediately and in front of others, ask if you can talk later when you don’t feel as much social pressure to say yes*.
- When you’re alone with the person, and you’ve had some time to consider the request, insert a “no”, “yes…but” or “yes…and” response.
- If you went with “yes…but” or “yes…and”, be willing to move to “no” if the person repetitively breaks his or her agreements.
- As much as possible, be willing to minimize or eliminate contact with this person if step #4 keeps happening (see Dealing with Toxic Personalities).
The next blog will discuss the other skill that it is important to develop when communicating with others: making requests or asking for what you need (How to Make Requests without Making Problems)
*A softer way to say “no” is to say “wait.” For instance, you could respond with, “I don’t know how I feel yet. I think I need some time to think about it. I’ll get back to you by ______ (reasonable time frame).” You are not putting them off forever, but you don’t feel pressured to make a decision right then and there. If the other person won’t give you a reasonable amount of time to consider or tries to make you decide in front of others, then be extra careful! Don’t let them pressure you into making a decision. Remember that urgency on their part doesn’t necessarily create an emergency for you:
You: “I don’t know how I feel yet. I think I need some time to think about it. I’ll get back to you by tomorrow.”
Them: “What is there to think about!”
You: “I’m not sure. That is why I need some time to sit with it.”
Them: “But I really need a decision!”
(Notice the more you stay balanced, the more they start to shoot the ball out of bounds.)
You (smiling): “I know, but it doesn’t seem like you need a decision right now. Like I said, I will think about it and get back to you tomorrow.”
Them (upset): “You’re being unreasonable! That won’t work for me!” or “But you’ll miss out on this great deal…” (The second one is the salesman’s favorite strategy. But what is more likely? That you’ll make an impulsive decision you’ll regret, or that you’ll legitimately miss out forever on a once-in-a-lifetime offer?)
You (calmly): “If you need an answer right now, then I guess my answer is ‘no.’ Are you sure I can’t have a day to think about it?” or “If it’s a good deal today it will still be a good deal tomorrow, but if you’re going to force me to make a decision, then I guess my answer will be ‘no’. Are you sure I can’t have a day to think about it?”
When your gut is telling you that something is wrong, giving yourself some time may be one of the best gifts you can give your family.
₁ This formula (X, Y, Z) was adapted from Lachman, V.D. (2009). Ethical Challenges in Health Care: Developing your moral compass. Springer Publishing Co, LLC: New York: NY. (p. 53).
₂ I was introduced to this pattern of communication in a workshop entitled “Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Treating Clients with Borderline Personality Disorder and Substance Use Disorders” (Behavioral Tech, LLC) by Kathryn Korslund, PhD, and Linda Dimeff, PhD on October 5th–6th, 2009.
[The blog above comes from the book, Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which is available exclusively from Amazon found on the link below]