Saying No, Guilt Free – Really!

Dilbert learning to say no

Dilbert’s Take on Saying No

When it comes to saying no, Dilbert is of course tongue in cheek. It does, however provide a nice segue into understanding ourselves. We are, of course, social animals that need, seek and thrive on reciprocity. So, we’re wired to want to oblige others and, therefore, say “yes”. By extension “no” becomes a challenge to a potential bond. That said, the tendency to say “yes” also threatens our well-being. For the simple reason that it often leads to us overcommitting. With this in mind, how do we put ourselves in the driver’s seat to control our own time, energy and life choices and do so guilt free?

Saying no with grace and conviction

Saying no offers a sense of empowerment but how do we do it without offending? An interesting study by Patrick and Hagtvedt (2012) identified an effective refusal technique: “I don’t” versus “I can’t”. The simple change in phraseology empowers individuals to extract themselves more effectively from undesirable situations without offending others. 

Let me illustrate.

Example 1:

A colleague asks you to join the team for a drink, of two, after work. You know well how these evenings tend to go: late and flowing freely with alcohol. While you appreciate the invite, you would rather spend the time with your family. 

Reply option A: “Thanks for the invite John. Unfortunately, I can’t make it.”

Reply option B: “Thanks for the invite John, I appreciate you asking me. I don’t go to social events in the week.”

The difference is option A is one framed as an excuse which could be up for debate. Whereas option B indicates a boundary for the person which signals clarity of conviction and stability, interestingly this tends to preserve the social connection. 

Example 2:

A door-to-door salesperson knocks on the door trying to sell home maintenance services. You don’t know anything about the company itself, however the salesperson is personable and a pleasure to speak to. At the end of the conversation, you’re faced with the decision to sign-up to one year of gardening services valued at U$900. You really don’t need the services, nor do you have disposable income for this six month “luxury”.

Reply option A: “I would love the services, but I can’t justify the expense to my spouse.”

Reply option B: “I appreciate you explaining your services to me and I’ve enjoyed talking to you, however I don’t ever buy from door-to-door solicitors.”

Similar to example one, option A is up for debate – can the salesperson give arguments to convince the spouse or sell it harder to overcome the fear? Whereas, option B is a clear boundary – no door-to-door goods or services are purchased, it’s not personal to the salesperson.

The examples illustrate the refusal technique identified by Patrick and Hagtvedt, it is very effective but are there other best practices? In short, there is always more!

What else can we do?

You’ve heard me say before: practice, practice, practice! In this context it means take a more assertive position in saying no when the stakes are low. You can use many of the same techniques I shared in the BLOG on Asking for Help – A Tough but Important Skill to Learn. Start small, for instance saying “no” to an offer to increase the credit limit on your American Express card. A “I don’t want an increase on my card, thank you” is much more convincing than a “Not today, thank you”. The latter opens the door to perhaps next quarter or next year – the former leaves the door closed. These impersonal opportunities are effective to practice saying “no”.

The next best practice is to have a drawer of standard “no answers” ready well before you need them. It is much easier to say no when you know what you are going to say than trying to react on the fly (where you are more likely to cave in and say yes). Your drawer statements might include variations on the following:

  • I don’t use store credit cards; I use cash for discretionary purchases.
  • Sorry, I don’t socialise during the week so I can spend time with my family.
  • Unfortunately, I am unable to travel on business in ZZZ, however I can travel in XXX or YYY.
  • Sadly, I cannot commit to attending XYZ but will let you know if anything changes.
  • Of course, I can understand that you need help with project ABC. Unfortunately don’t have any free time available to help until another project is completed or terminated.
  • Thank you for asking, but I’m not doing media interviews while I’m writing my book.
  • I am unavailable to speak at your event in February, but I will help you promote it on my LinkedIn page and my website.

The idea behind the drawer statements is clarity of purpose and politeness. The approach will build your reflexive behaviour in just saying no. 

Saying no actually accelerates your career (contrary to popular belief). You may wonder why. When we have clarity of goals and purpose, we tend to say yes to opportunities that most reflect our values and objectives. By allowing buffer within your day (because you’ve said no to some things), your schedule allows space for new and interesting opportunities that would otherwise pass us by.

No is a little word that reminds us how much control we actually have over our lives and our future. For most of us, it means living a happier and less stressful life. Something so much easier to do from the driver’s seat rather than the passenger seat!

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