When I sat down today to make up my to-do list it occurred to me that this was going to be a very busy week. And to make matters worse, I had no one to blame except myself. For much of my life I’ve had trouble saying no to people, especially when it comes in areas I think are important. But as I’ve mentioned before, I recently read Essentialism—The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Not only does the book focus on eliminating everything that is unessential in our lives so we can focus on what really matters, McKeown suggests that learning to say “No” is a critical and courageous step required to do just that. So for those of us on the path to simplifying our lives or those of us who want to live by design rather than default, it is very SMART to learn ways to say No from here on out.
I think it’s important to understand why we say yes rather than no in the first place. Here are nine I came up with:
1) We’re afraid of missing out.
2) We’re afraid of lost opportunity
3) We’re afraid someone won’t like/love us
4) We’re afraid we’ll disappoint someone
5) We’re afraid others will judge us harshly.
6) Sometimes we yearn for the rush of pleasure we get from the yes—until we actually have to do what it is we’ve committed ourselves to do.
7) It’s often easier (in the moment) to say yes than it is to be courageous and say no.
8) We’re so unclear about what is important to us that we can’t tell if a yes or a no is to our real benefit.
9) We’ve gotten in the habit of just saying yes to what others ask without thinking.
As we can see there is often a great deal of fear in most of our decisions to say yes. Even when it isn’t about fear, most of our actions and choices are grounded in our inability to be very clear about what it is we want to do and experience in our lives in the first place. I’m as guilty as anyone. Even when I’m not worried about someone judging me harshly or missing out on something important, I often find myself saying yes because I’m scattered and distracted about what I should really be spending my time doing. As McKeown says, “The point is to say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter. It is to say no—frequently and gracefully—to everything but what is truly vital.”
Okay, so how do we do that? Here are nine ways I intend to practice saying no frequently and gracefully in the near future.
- McKeown suggests we “separate the decision from the relationship.” Much of the time we are more worried about how our answer will affect the relationship rather than how it will impact our ability to do what is critical in our lives. He says that we must remember, “denying the request is not the same as denying the person.”
- Saying no doesn’t mean you have to say, “No!” In other words, there are lots of different ways to communicate that you are unable to comply with a request. Taking the time to learn a few choice techniques will pay off in the long run.
- Focus on the cost or the trade-off before opening our mouths. Much of the time we say yes without even thinking of what that commitment will mean in terms of time and energy. If we consider what the trade offs will require, and what it will realistically take to say yes, we might find the easy courage to say no.
- Count to twenty. Lots of people say it’s wise to count to ten before answering anyone when put on the spot. When it comes as a request for us to do something, let’s count to twenty to give ourselves plenty of time to consider the request in terms of what it really means to us. And in some ways, our pause might signal to the requester that we might not be the best choice after all.
- Using the soft “I’d like to, but….” This is a popular way of deflecting the heat of the question in the moment. Most people find this one of the easiest and least confrontational of all the ways to say no. Similarly, such a simple excuse is a favorite when used with friends and family.
- Say what you are willing to do but be sure and be clear about what you won’t. A big problem with saying yes to others is that much of the request isn’t clear until after you’ve gotten involved. That’s why having clear boundaries about what is most important is so helpful. When you know exactly how and where a request will fit (or not fit) into your life, you can agree to a portion of it while clearly stating no to the rest. Often, that might be what the person needs from you most of all.
- Go ahead and say yes, but ask the person who made the request to help you re-prioritize. Many of us are put in a challenging position when someone with authority asks us to do something. Realistically, we can only do so much with our time and whenever we take on something new, other things we do must be reshuffled. Whenever asked by a superior to do even one more thing, put the responsibility for what must be shuffled back on his or her shoulders. They just might decide to ask someone else instead.
- Say it using humor. Many years ago someone gave me a small plaque that reads, “Please—I can only do twelve things at a time.” I still have it and yes, I use it every now and then and it always gets a laugh. Humor is often an excellent way to break the tension of being put on the spot. Then it is easier to say no.
- Remember that every yes you give someone else, may be a no to yourself and your own essential dreams. The biggest take-away I received after reading McKeown’s book was that far too often I get careless about my own essential needs and desires, and put others before my own. Essentialism reminds me to focus on my priorities first and foremost, and be very clear that when I put others first, I am sacrificing my own. While there may be a time when that is good and important to me to give someone else priority, most of the time I am doing it by default, not design.
This morning I attended a meeting where a request was made for someone to volunteer to head up a new committee. I didn’t say a word and kept my mouth shut. Meanwhile Carol, another woman at the meeting, spent nearly 15 minutes explaining why even though she would be really good at it, she wasn’t sure if she had time. In spite of that, when the meeting finally finished, Carol agreed to be the new chairperson for the committee. I can only guess her reason for saying yes, but I’ll bet she’ll soon be wishing she’d said no. Let’s not be like Carol.
According to Greg McKeown, “Essentialism is more than a time-management strategy or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest contribution toward the things that really matter.” In the middle of all that is the courage to create boundaries and say no when necessary. It doesn’t matter whether we are involved in business or merely striving toward a happy life, it is SMART to learn to say no to everything nonessential.
QUESTION: What is YOUR best tip for saying no to others? Please share in the comments below!
For my previous article on Essentialism—The Disciplined Pursuit of Less