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Try Saying YES to saying NO!

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

I’m going to challenge you to try something that makes most of us feel very uncomfortable … saying yes to saying “No”.

As toddlers, we used it more than any other word in our teeny vocabularies. But years of social conditioning teaches us to put the needs of everyone else before our own and this behaviour, if habitual, can ultimately prevent us from living the lives we would choose for ourselves. Let’s talk about why it’s important to be saying yes to saying no more often.

Why is it so difficult?

People pleasing behaviour starts young. We are taught to be polite and compliant at home and at school so that we can integrate with our social groups. Saying “no” when we’re growing up means challenging authority figures, falling short of parental or peer expectations and risking punishment for not conforming as we are expected to. We are trained to be “good” by being agreeable and doing as we’re told.

Why saying “Yes” can be bad for our health

Unfortunately, the immediate affirmative response can become our default setting. The result? We take on too many tasks at work and end up achieving very little, leaving us feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Our social lives are not immune either. Who hasn’t been dragged along to watch a Bond film/romcom /Britain’s Got Talent, and rather than admitting you would rather eat your own head, you ended up sitting there resentfully, ruing the two hours of your life you’re never getting back.

We should remember that time is our most precious commodity and when we say “yes” to one thing, we are essentially saying “no” to something else. Once we stop going with the flow and start to make conscious choices, we can finally feel back in control of our time and how we wish to spend it.

Don’t go cold turkey

I’m not suggesting you start brazenly telling your boss where to get off, when approached with a task, just think about what you can reasonably take on and try to carve out time to do the things that you consider important. Your time is just as important as everyone else’s and you should not always be the one expected to compromise.

Let them down gently

This is a skill, especially if you have always been a “yes” person but it’s an important one to master, as it will avoid causing offence. The aim is that both parties feel comfortable with the outcome. Let’s imagine a colleague asks you to take on a task which is going to distract you from your own work agenda and you’re pushed for time. Nobody likes to feel rejected, which is why you’re feeling squeamish about turning them down. So how to respond?

  • Be honest: telling a white lie may be the easiest way of getting out of it but not recommended. If you’re busted, it will ruin your credibility and your relationship.

  • Buy some time: Ask if you can think about it and get back to them. You will be able to craft a thoughtful response which will not cause offence and you have done them the courtesy of considering their request. This may sound deceitful but you can pre-empt your ultimate response by stating that you may not be able to help but you will let them know – and give a time frame; leaving them hanging is not fair or professional.

  • We all have busy lives and it’s better to disappoint someone by declining their proposition at the beginning than not delivering on a promise or sacrificing something more important to you. Don’t be shy about citing family or health priorities if these are considerations. Your colleague is likely to understand and empathise.

  • Offer alternative solutions: You may be able to suggest a different way to achieve the intended outcome or know someone else who can help.

  • When no means no: Not so pertinent in the above scenario but never hesitate to say no if you are asked to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or goes against your principles. Whilst we all like to think of ourselves as moral beings, we are human and therefore susceptible to overriding our moral compass where there is a perceived risk of standing up to something we feel uncomfortable about. Answer to your conscience first.

The ability to say “No” is a superpower which helps us to be more selective about how we spend our time and avoid becoming part of someone else’s agenda. Go on, try it!


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