Author  -  Mat Daniel

Why is saying no so difficult?

Assertiveness is about standing up for your needs in a socially acceptable manner. A classic example of assertiveness is saying no.

Saying No is difficult for many of us.

There are two common reasons why people find it difficult to say No:

  1. Need for approval. Deep inside, we all want and need to be liked. From a young age, we are conditioned to say yes, and saying no is a bad thing. When we say no, we worry that this will mean that the other person won’t like us, or will think we are selfish, or will lead to conflict. Saying No means that we are prioritising ourselves, instead of the person asking us.
  2. Need to be in control. We want to be in control, be right, be perfect, and to know what is going on. Saying No means that we are giving up the chance to show our skills and we may no longer know what is going on.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will saying No really change what this person thinks of me? Do I have a track record with this person which will withstand me saying No this time? Or indeed, do I need this person to like me at all? Am I saying Yes because I derive too much of my self-worth from how others see me?
  2. Do I really need to be in control? Do I really need to know everything? Do I really need to say Yes so that I can then show off how good I am? Could saying No create an opportunity for the requestor to develop themselves as a result?

Two sides of the same coin

Yes and No are two sides of the same coin. When we say Yes to one thing, we say No to another. Saying Yes has consequences.

For example

  • When we say Yes to another job, we are saying No to leisure time.
  • When we say Yes to helping a friend, we are saying No running, gym, yoga or meditation.
  • If we say Yes to an “unreasonable” request for help, we are taking away the opportunity for the requestor to learn to deal with problems themselves
  • If we say Yes yet another time, we are saying No to others seeing us as an independent rounded individual capable of managing workload and work-life balance, seeing us instead as a pushover that can be dumped on all the time.

Consciously choose when to say Yes and when to say No. Know your values, and use them to help guide what you do.

Catch your thinking

Often people say Yes before they think. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you be more aware of your thoughts, and analyse your thoughts rationally rather than just following them slavishly. In practical terms, don't give immediate decisions, don't jump to conclusions, and think before you decide.

Develop assertiveness to enable you to say no.

Assertiveness means standing up for yourself and your views in a socially acceptable way. It is not a negative thing, it isn’t being bossy, and it isn’t being lazy.

Try the following strategy

  • Work through your feelings about saying No, and consciously choose to say No even if that is difficult and it brings difficult thoughts and emotions
  • Remind yourself what the costs of giving into others' demands are, and what would be the consequences of continuously prioritising others over many years
  • Appreciate that you have a right to say No, have rest, see family, walk the dog, take a holiday …
  • Practice the assertiveness conversation
  • Have a contingency plan
  • Go for win/win and easy outcomes first
  • Aim to progress, don't worry about perfection

How to say No

Try using the following way of saying No:

  1. Thank requestor
  2. Use empathy to make it clear that you recognise the importance of the task to THEM
  3. Show you consider request a compliment
  4. Decline

You don't need to apologise, say sorry, negotiate, or say you will do it at some stage in the future. There is nothing to apologise for, you have made a decision and that is fine and final.

Note you don't need to use the word “No”, the above way of declining allows you to bring in other words. A frank No at the beginning of your answer may be difficult for you to achieve, and may offend some people.

Practice saying No

Start by saying No to simple things that are of little consequence. Every time you say No, reflect on your feelings, what was going through your mind, what made you say No, what helped you say No. With time you will learn which clues help you, and which values come to play to enable you to say No. When you are practiced in saying No to small things and develop skills that help you, you will be able to say No to bigger things.

When tempted to say Yes, ask yourself about your need for approval and need to be in control, and remind yourself that Yes and No are two sides of the same coin.

Non-violent communications

Rosenberg's concept of non-violent communication also helps in being assertive. He stresses the importance of empathising with the other person, and stating your own needs without getting carried away by emotions. His process for communication is as follows

1 - state what you observe

2 - state how you feel in relation to what you observe

3 - state which of your needs / desires / values lead to your feelings

4 - request actions from the other person so that your needs can be met

Of course this often leads to negotiation, and you need to listen to what the other person needs as much as being aware of your own needs; aim for consensus and win-win resolutions. Emotional intelligence can also help negotiate in a way that recognises and validates your own emotions as well as the emotions of others, enabling you to proceed in a balanced way that assumes that both parties involved are fundamentally good human beings at heart.