With apologies to Nike, I’d like you to consider this new maxim: “Just don’t do it!” Don’t say YES to every request, demand, invitation, obligation, favour or opportunity out there. Oh, you can go ahead and say YES to things you really love (good coffee, a bike ride, an afternoon nap) but for anything that you really don’t absolutely need to do, there’s a useful word for you to contemplate using, and that word is NO!
But for many of us who may have trouble saying NO to others, we learn to somehow “normalize” over-extending ourselves, exhausting ourselves, pushing ourselves as we continue to say YES when we really want to say NO. Many of us even brag about how utterly overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted and stretched thin we are, as if answering “Crazy busy!” to a simple “How are you?” greeting is somehow a mark of honour!
Some of us may, in fact, learn this word NO only out of enforced necessity as we recuperate from a cardiac event. As another heart attack survivor wrote me:
“I have more balance in my life now – because I have to!”
Here’s a tip: don’t wait until illness forces you to wise up.
There’s nothing quite like a traumatic and life-altering crisis to motivate oneself to take stock. If I do this, will it be good or bad for my health? What do I really want to do, and why aren’t I doing more of it? What don’t I want to do anymore – and why am I doing any of it?
To guide us along as we begin practicing how to say NO when we mean NO, let’s review this useful list of nine practices to help us say the word, offered by Peter Bregman last month in the Harvard Business Review:
- Know your NO. Identify what’s important to you and acknowledge what’s not. If you don’t know where you want to spend your time, you won’t know where you don’t want to spend your time. Before you can say NO with confidence, you have to be clear that you want to say NO. All the other steps follow this one.
- Be appreciative. It’s almost never an insult when people make requests of you. They’re asking for your help because they trust you and they believe in your capabilities to help. So thank them for thinking of you or making the request/invitation. Don’t worry – this doesn’t need to lead to a YES.
- Say NO to the request, not the person. You’re not rejecting the person, just declining the invitation. So make that clear. Let them know what you respect about then — maybe you admire their work, or recognize their passion or generosity. Don’t fake this — even if you don’t like the person making the request, simply being polite and kind will communicate that you aren’t rejecting them.
- Explain why. The particulars of your reason for saying NO make very little difference. But having a reason does. Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t feel like what they’re asking you to do plays to your strengths. Be honest about why you’re saying NO. (Carolyn’s note: personally, I have often found that simply saying NO is often quite enough all by itself, e.g: “Are you available on Friday to do ___?” requires merely a “NO, I’m not!” response – no reason required).
- Be as resolute as they are pushy. Some people don’t give up easily. That’s their prerogative. But without violating any of the rules above, give yourself permission to be just as pushy as they are. They’ll respect you for it. You can make light of it if you want (“I know you don’t give up easily — but neither do I. I’m getting better at saying NO!”)
- Practice. Choose some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying NO. Say NO when a waiter offers you dessert. Say NO when someone tries to sell you something. Go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and say NO out loud ten times. It sounds crazy, but building your NO muscle helps.
- Establish a pre-emptive NO. We all have certain people in our lives who tend to make repeated, sometimes burdensome requests of us. In those cases, it’s better to say NO before the request even comes in. 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. Some of us have a hard time saying NO because we hate to miss an opportunity. And saying NO always leads to a missed opportunity. But it’s not just a missed opportunity – it’s a tradeoff. Remind yourself that when you’re saying NO to the request, you are simultaneously saying YES to something you value more than the request. Both are opportunities. You’re just choosing one over the other.
- Gather your courage. If you’re someone who is used to saying YES, it will take courage to say NO, especially if the person asking doesn’t give up easily. You may feel like a bad friend. You might feel like you’re letting someone down or not living up to expectations. Maybe you’ll imagine that you’ll be seen or talked about in a negative light. Those things might be the cost of reclaiming your life. You’ll need courage to put up with them.
And finally, it turns out there may even be a new word to describe those of us who have trouble saying no, according to the book That Should Be a Word by Lizzie Skumick, who shares this word:
Canvict – (CAN-vikt), n. “One imprisoned by inability to say no.”
.NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about saying YES when we mean NO in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017).
Q: How hard is it for you to say NO?