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How to Say No

Body+Soul, March 2008

You caved -- again. Now you're stuck chairing the annual fund-raiser (or cat-sitting for your neighbor, or working late). What if you could turn down that request, that offer, that invite, and not feel so guilty about it afterward? Wouldn't it be great if once, just once, you could stick to your guns and say no when you needed to most?

There are lots of reasons we struggle with "no." Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting someone's feelings. Others believe they really can do it all (and hate to pass up the opportunity to try). But think about it: Almost every misplaced yes is really a no to yourself.

"When you can't say no," says negotiator William Ury, Ph.D., author of "The Power of a Positive No," "you give up what's essential to you in favor of what other people want." You also put yourself on a fast track to a meltdown. "When you take on more than you can handle, you eventually burn out," says Nanette Gartrell, M.D., author of "My Answer Is No ... If That's Okay with You." "It's not uncommon to develop exhaustion or even depression as a result."

By asserting yourself in a considerate, confident way, says Ury, you can be selective about what you take on without jeopardizing friendships -- a people-pleaser's biggest fear. Try our five-step plan so that you can start saying no -- and stop feeling guilty.

Five Steps to Saying No

1. Find Your Yes

Before you can even think about getting good at saying no, get clear on what to say yes to in life. If your yes is more time with your family, that will mean turning down obligations that keep you away from home. If it's yes to better health, you'll need to say no to late nights at work that keep you from the gym. The firmer your foundation and connection to your yes, says Ury, the less difficult it will be to say no. After all, you'll be answering to a higher cause.

2. Buy Some Time

Whenever possible, don't respond to a request on the spot. This keeps you from saying yes under pressure ("Um ... sure I'll host the baby shower") or reacting emotionally to the request, especially when you're feeling stressed out. "We can't say no without getting a firm grip on our natural reactions and emotions," says Ury -- and that won't happen unless you've taken the time to collect your thoughts.

To gain some perspective, Ury suggests getting some distance from the issue at hand physically and mentally for a few hours, or even a day. Figure out whose interests are at stake, what's really being asked of you, and whether it makes sense to say yes. But be sure not to wait too long; leave the person hanging indefinitely, and you could damage a relationship.

3. Deliver Your No with Grace and Resolve

The moment of truth can be the most difficult of all, particularly when you're afraid of hurting someone's feelings. Ury suggests a "yes-no-yes" approach: First, share what you're currently saying yes to ("My mother and I always go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings"). Then say no ("So I won't be able to help you set up for the brunch you're hosting").

But don't stop there. After you've turned someone down, affirm your good intentions by closing with another yes -- this time, to a mutually positive outcome ("But I'd be happy to help clean up after it's over"). In so doing, you relieve some of the frustration wrought by closing a door, while sending the message that you respect the other person's needs.

For greater requests of your time -- say, to serve on the town board or help a colleague launch her new business -- be direct and to the point: You're flattered but have decided to devote any free time to your children's school instead. Avoid burdening the other person with unnecessary or elaborate excuses (such as how your mother moved away and can't watch the kids). You run the risk of the other person trying to fix the situation ("Bring the kids, then!"). Plus, the more drawn-out the excuse, the less authentic it sounds -- and, in the end, it's really no one else's business.

4. Have a Plan B

Even if the other person gets emotional or reactive after you've delivered your no, don't yield under pressure -- as difficult as this may seem. Instead, take a deep breath and listen attentively to his or her objections. Then, gently but firmly, underscore your no -- and keep it simple and clean; no backpedaling or scrambling for defense.

What if your no is met with extreme resistance? Your in-laws insist that you spend the holidays at their home again; a colleague plays hardball in pressuring you into taking over a project. For this, Ury proposes having a Plan B. Think about what's at stake (your time, resources, or respect) and be ready to pursue another path if your original no goes unheeded.

If your no fails to convince a pushy coworker that you can't take on extra projects, for instance, plan to bring the conversation to a close and go to your boss with your concerns if necessary. If your sister has a habit of dropping the kids off unannounced (despite your protests that you have other pressing obligations), decide that next time she ignores your no, you will respectfully tell her you already have plans -- and then leave the house. "The key here is not necessarily to leap to Plan B," says Ury, "but to have it in mind so that, going in, you know you have alternatives."

Note that while Plan B works wonders when it comes to isolated situations, it can also be incredibly helpful in addressing general patterns you fall into. Your Achilles' heel might be lending money to friends and family (and forgetting to get repaid) or going weak when the nonprofit solicitors come knocking. Recognize these tendencies, and you'll be more effective in lining up your own backup plan.

5. Cut Yourself Some Slack

Even with practice, some will always find saying no a challenge. For the dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser, there may be a twinge of guilt -- and, for the overly ambitious, regret. Realize that your perennial inclination to offer help is something to be lauded, not criticized. "Be proud of the qualities that make it so hard to say no -- thoughtfulness, empathy, compassion, generosity," says Gartrell. "Without them, the infrastructure of our society would collapse." Just bear in mind that by balancing your "pleaser" and "doer" tendencies with a commitment to your values, you'll be stronger for it. Even better, you'll be a more focused contributor to the people and things that matter most to you.

How to Say No

There's more than one way to say it. Skip the excuses and opt for one of these suggestions from author William Ury.

"Not now."

This softens the blow and keeps the door open for another time.

"I have another commitment."

No other excuse required; you honor your commitments.

"Maybe I can help you find someone who can."

This shows respect and concern.

"I have a personal policy about ..."

And fill in the blank. By saying this, you put the focus on a prior commitment to yourself without opening the door for an argument (useful, say, when someone wants you to commit to working on Saturdays or give to a charity when you have a different one in mind).

"I don't want to take on what I can't fully commit to doing well."

This is a yes to higher standards.

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