In my work as a coach and consultant, an issue that I frequently encounter is an inability to set and maintain healthy boundaries. One manifestation of this is over-burdened people living out-of-control lives due to an inability to say no. It’s not really surprising, seeing as most of us were raised in a culture where being polite (or nice) and submissive were seen as core values to instill in children. So most of us fear saying no, because of a perception that we’d be seen as rude or unhelpful, and that we’d have to face some sort of “punishment”.
I especially run into this issue when I do strength coaching. Although it’s something that many people struggle with, it seems that people with a natural talent of Responsibility are particularly prone to it. Something that we often lose sight of is that we really only have two resources that we are able to “spend” in life, and both are finite: time and energy. If we squander these on activities that aren’t important to us, we are wasting our lives and being our own worst enemies. Fortunately saying no and maintaining healthy boundaries are skills that can be learned – and it becomes easier with practice.
- Know your no. Be really clear on your no. Why are saying no? What are you saying yes to, by saying no? It’s important to know what is really important to you and to honestly acknowledge what isn’t important enough for you to spend time and resources on. Sometimes we may feel that it’s not “right” to admit that a good or noble activity such as giving to charity is not a priority, but if saving for your children’s education or getting out of debt is more important, it’s important to acknowledge it. If you don’t know what’s important, you won’t be able to say no with confidence.
- Be appreciative. There is no reason to be rude or disrespectful when saying no to someone. People make requests of you because they believe you are dependable, capable, and trustworthy. Showing appreciation that they’ve come to you with the request/invitation softens the “no” and honors the person who is making the request.
- Say no to the request, not the person. One of the main reasons we avoid saying no is because we are afraid that the person will feel rejected. It’s important to separate the person from the request/invitation – if I am unable to babysit for you, or take over a responsibility I’m declining your request, I’m not rejecting you. Sometimes this message can be conveyed by something as simple as the tone of your voice and the words you choose to use when you say no. Even if you don’t like a person, there’s no need to be rude.
- Explain why. In short, be honest about why you are saying no. You don’t need to give a lot of detail, but communicating an honest reason is helpful.
- Be as resolute as they are pushy. This is probably the one that I struggle with the most. Some people can be very persistent, and I often allow them to “wear me down” and end up feeling resentful when I feel bullied or manipulated into doing something I really didn’t want to do. Bregman states that it’s important to give yourself permission to be just as pushy as the other person is, without dishonoring them or being rude. Funnily enough, they end up respecting you more.
- Practice. Some people or situations are easier to say no to than others, so exercise your no muscle in easier, less risky situations. Good options could be the salesman trying to sell something to you at a street corner or at a market stall, or the telemarketer that phones with yet another cell phone contract offer.
- Establish a pre-emptive no. We all know the feeling, the phone rings and when you see the caller id you groan inside and try to think of an excuse not to answer. We all have certain “high maintenance” people in our lives that make inconsiderate or burdensome requests of us. These people are typically very hard to say no to as they know how to “get under our skin”, or it may even be someone in authority over us. With these people, it’s better to say no before the request it made. Bregman advises us to “let that person know that you’re hyper-focused on a couple of things in your life and trying to reduce your obligations in all other areas. If it’s your boss who tends to make the requests, agree upfront with her about where you should be spending your time. Then, when the requests come in, you can refer to your earlier conversation.“
- Be prepared to miss out. This is one I struggle with myself. I often fear that I’d regret saying no to something – that I’ll miss out on an amazing opportunity by saying no. Problem is if I say yes to everything I end up with too little energy to enjoy these amazing opportunities. Similar to the first practice, I need to remind myself that I’m saying yes to something that is more important to me, by saying no. It’s always a trade-off. This is why it’s important to establish your priorities up-front to ensure that you choose the opportunity you value most.
- Gather your courage. If you’re not used to saying no, the prospect of doing so can provoke a lot of anxiety. We immediately go to the worst-case scenario and imagine all kinds of negative consequences following our no. If you are someone who is very responsible, the feeling that you’re disappointing someone, or letting them down may be debilitating at first. If the person you have to say no to is pushy or manipulative it becomes even harder. In the end, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. The “pain” of saying no is the price you need to pay to reclaim your life and have the opportunity to spend your time and energy on the things that are really important to you. Have a vision for what your life would be like if you are able to maintain your boundaries and say no. Vision gives meaning to pain, and makes it easier to persevere.
Although it may be scary at first when we start flexing our “no” muscle, it is liberating and we find that people actually respect us more for our boundaries, than for our “niceness”. A great book to check out if you have trouble with saying no is William Ury’s The Power of a Postive No.