Innocuous on the surface, questions such as “Will you look after my kids?” or, “Can I borrow your car?” are enough to derail many of us on a daily basis thanks to our near total inability to say no. It might be one of the shortest words in the English language, but somewhere along the journey from brain to mouth, “no” all too frequently mutates into an enthusiastic, “Yes!”, a cheery, “Of course!” or – most maddeningly of all – something along the lines of, “Why not let the kids sleep over so you can make a night of it?”.
Time and again, the person doing the asking gets to leave with a huge grin on their face while you sit there, miserable, annoyed by your own weakness, frustrated by your inability to change and generally hacked off that someone has got one over on you. Again.
Why is saying no the most hard-to-master skill in the world? “One of the main reasons people struggle is the assumption that by saying no they’re going to offend,” says Anna Yates, a Dubai-based psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist (www.elitemindsolutions.com). “People want others to like them, and they assume they’ll lose that friendship if they say no.”
But would you? Would your best pal really sever all ties if you said that you didn’t want to go to their kid’s school play or spend the day trudging around Mall of the Emirates shopping for shoes? More importantly, if they are the kind of people who would ditch you for something so trivial, are they the kind of friend you really need after all?
Maybe it’s time to man up. Perhaps this is your moment to tell the world what you really think for a change…
“Saying no is a struggle for many of us because of the set of rules we have made for ourselves,” says Jacqui Marson (www.jacquimarson.co.uk), author of The Curse of Lovely – How to Break Free from the Demands of Others. “These are rules that often come from our childhood, and they tell us how to behave – things like ‘be good’, ‘be kind’, ‘be helpful’. And the flipside to that is the question, ‘What would happen if I wasn’t these things?’.”
The fear, Jacqui says, is that people won’t like or respect you if you deviate from what you believe is the correct way to be. “Those fears keep us trapped inside these rigid personal rules of ‘I must always say yes.’”
Saying no, says Jacqui, is even more difficult when dealing with close family or friends because these are the people we are especially keen to please. Adding to the problem in the UAE, perhaps, is the desire to get on and do well. “Everyone wants to be liked over here,” says Anna. “It can be quite cliquey, and if you’re outside of that it can be lonely. So it can be tempting to say yes when you want to say no.”
What many of us don’t realise, however, is that being so keen to please can be detrimental to our own well-being.
“Saying yes all the time doesn’t allow time for yourself,” says Anna. “If you’re the kind of person who says yes to everyone else’s demands, you don’t give yourself time to do the things that are important to you; you end up living your life where other people are steering rather than being in control yourself. You can lose your self-respect, end up being resentful and lose direction.”
Adds Jacqui, “If we always say yes and put the needs of others before those of ourselves, we’re in a real danger of building resentment, getting health problems and feeling burnt out.”
In order to change our default setting – that overriding compulsion to say yes when we’d rather say the opposite – Jacqui says it’s essential to rethink the beliefs that are making us so eager to please. Her method is to devise a personal bill of rights for yourself – a set of statements that remind us we’re not on this earth just to serve others.
“It should involve things like, ‘I have the right to put my own needs first some of the time’, which you do,” she says. You can add things like, “It’s OK to disagree with people” and “I don’t have to do things I don’t like” to the list. Keep repeating these rights to yourself and start believing in them: they’re your gateway to getting what you really desire. As Jacqui says, “If you can’t be brave enough to say what you want, how will people ever know what you’re really thinking?”
It’s an interesting point – and your friendships may currently be suffering because of your aversion to rock the boat. As Anna points out, “If you really don’t want to do something, it’s probably the case that the other person would rather you’d told them the truth. No one wants to think that someone is doing something unwillingly.”
Once you’ve made up your mind to be more assertive, you next need to learn “the language of no”, as Jacqui puts it. “It’s much easier than you thought,” she says. “And people won’t cut you off and hate you as you feared they would.”
To practise, start small. Jacqui recommends tackling something only mildly challenging, and it doesn’t have to involve the word ‘no’ at all. She suggests, for example, saying hello in the lift to a neighbour you normally don’t bother with. What you’re doing is seizing control of a situation. It can feel empowering, and it can be rather exciting. Throw in a few ‘no’s to small requests over the days that follow and your confidence should build rapidly. “People are generally amazed by how they feel and go on to tackle bigger and scarier things,” says Jacqui.
Too much, too soon? Anna has an alternative suggestion. It’s a well-regarded tool known as pause-button therapy and it has proved itself a success in multiple self-help situations.
In a nutshell, habitual yes-men – or, indeed, anyone whose natural inclination is to act without thinking – are given a piece of card with the word ‘pause’ printed on it; it’s kept in the pocket and is something to reach for in a moment of decision. Helpful with everything from anger management to addictions, Anna says it has proved big a hit with people who come to see her because they want to be more assertive.
“It is like a remote control for their life,” says Anna. “When they find themselves in a situation where they can’t decide whether to say yes or no, they can ‘press pause’ and think about the consequences of whichever direction they go in. We’ve become a society of instant gratification and instant responses, when really we need to take time and step back a little to review what we’re about to do.”
The pause button – which doesn’t need to be whipped out in a dramatic fashion; it can be thumbed discreetly in a pocket or handbag – is as much a symbol of intent as anything, and could be replaced, for example, with a rubber band around the wrist. A moment’s pause to twang it will give you just the impetus you need to think things through before blurting out ‘yes!’, as usual. The more you use it, the less you’ll actually need it because the act of taking a moment to think before responding will become habit.
“Saying no is a little like a muscle,” says Anna. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.” And just like Jacqui, she agrees that mastering the art of saying no can be life-changing. “Whenever you give people control of their life and their destiny,” she says, “they’re in the driving seat and feel empowered.”
If this all sounds a bit too much and a quick glance around your office or living room makes you think that saying no is going to result in instant dismissal or a social catastrophe, Jacqui suggests what she calls “the gracious no” – and it might just be the answer.
The gracious no comes in three stages, and begins with you thanking whoever’s asked you to do something in a warm and genuine way. “Then you either say the word ‘no’,” says Jacqui, “or, for beginners, you can buy yourself time and say ‘I must check with my diary/husband’, whatever. Now say you will get back to them at a certain time tomorrow, and do exactly that. This gives you time to work out not so much your excuse, but your rationale.”
The third stage is to end on a high, such as finishing with a compliment.
Putting the three stages together, the conversation might go something like, “Oh, a ride in your new boat! How fabulous – that’s so nice of you to invite me. Unfortunately, I can’t come as I really don’t like the water, but I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time because I know your boat is magnificent.”
Easy! No one has been offended, and you’ve got out of something you didn’t want to do. Don’t you owe it to yourself to try? “If you never master saying no then whenever you say yes it’s basically meaningless,” points out Jacqui. “Once we have the ability to say no, we give more freely because it’s on our own terms and it’s from the heart.”
In short, we’re saying yes because we want to, not because we feel we have no option. And it really does work. Says Jacqui, “I remember helping a lady in her 40s – we’ll call her Susan – who found herself increasingly unable to deal with her bank’s new management team. She came to me in tears, feeling weak, worthless and undervalued, but after a few sessions she was implementing the gracious no, which she found liberating. “Susan said she felt very strange saying no at first, but found that people responded to it really well. They couldn’t really come back with anything abusive or negative when she was being so polite, and also, in her own way, so assertive. The last time I heard from her she’d been promoted and was more confident.”