Saying No: Part One – When to Say No

Saying No

The older I get, the more I realize that saying no is an important life skill. And yet it’s not really something we’re taught how to do. We are taught to share and to help others but we’re not really taught to evaluate properly when we should do those things and when the best thing to do is to politely decline and walk away.

Some of us are really good at going with our gut and find it very easy to make decisions quickly. Others are really good at putting themselves first and have no trouble saying no. If you are anything like me, you probably find yourself in the camp that agonizes over many decisions (for me, it’s the need to know I’m making the right decision, which usually involves taking every possible consequence and implication into account) and worries about offending or hurting someone else. I have found myself doing things in the past that I really did not want to do simply because I felt like I had to. This does still happen today, but to a much lesser degree and I usually feel a lot more in control of that decision. Because it is a decision now, and not just a knee-jerk reaction to being asked for help.

When it comes to saying no, there are two crucial skills you need to have:

  • knowing when to say no; and
  • knowing how to say no

When to Say No

In this post, I talk about the first part of the equation: deciding when to say no. To begin with, keep these three things in mind:

  1. Your time is valuable
  2. You can say no
  3. People will get over it

Before you work yourself into a state, realize that you’re the one in control here, not a victim of circumstance. Just because somebody asks you for something doesn’t mean that the only answer is yes. Your time and resources are valuable and you can choose to dispose of them as you see fit. The very fact that you are being asked for something implies that it is a choice. You do have the choice to say no.

Are there consequences? Of course. You might feel guilty. The other person might feel upset. Tit-for-tat might be involved at some point in the future. But you are the one who gets to choose which set of consequences you would like to go with. Say yes or no, but make that decision consciously so that you can be at peace with the consequences.

At the end of the day, it really isn’t that big a deal in most cases. Nobody expects you to agree to everything. And if they do, then maybe that relationship can use a reality check. If somebody asks me for help and doesn’t really give me a chance to politely decline, then they’re not really asking, are they? And if they don’t value me enough to respect my decisions, then what exactly is the nature of that relationship and how well does it serve me?

Questions to Help You Decide When to Say No:

  • will agreeing to help involve incurring any costs? (e.g., time, money, using up favours owed, taxing your social or professional network, etc.)? Are you comfortable with those costs?
  • will you resent yourself for saying yes? will you resent yourself for saying no? why?
  • how easy is it for you to do what is being asked? will the benefit of helping someone outweigh the inconvenience of doing so?
  • is the person asking someone who will hold a grudge if you say no? is this something that you want to avoid or a consequence you can live with?
  • will you personally lose sleep over not helping?
  • can the person asking get this help elsewhere or are you their only option?
  • do you personally feel that helping this person in this particular situation is the right thing to do? (not guilt, but an actual justifiable belief that this needs to be done)
  • can the extent of your involvement be negotiated where it’s less of an inconvenience for you?
  • are there any benefits to saying yes? (e.g., can that person help you with something else in return? will this improve your relationship with them? do you get to practice a skill you don’t use very often?)
  • has that person helped you in the past? are you being asked to return the favour?
  • what is your gut telling you to do? does that feeling make sense logically?

Quite simply, all you’re trying to do is look at the pros and cons and try to balance them out. If it’s something simple and won’t require a lot of time or effort, it’s usually a good idea to err on the side of helping. It doesn’t hurt to bank some extra brownie points and generally be a nice human being.

But if it’s something more involved that requires a larger commitment, you’re not helping anyone by agreeing too quickly. In fact, the right thing to do is to carefully consider what is being asked and sometimes say no. If you take on a task you’re dead set against, you can actually make matters worse than if you had just walked away in the first place. Instead of doing a poor job of the task or resenting that person for asking you and possibly damaging your relationship, you are giving them a better chance of finding someone more suitable to help them. You will be giving them a better chance of finding that help if you tell them upfront you are not able to do what they ask instead of procrastinating on the task or doing a poor job of it before finally begrudgingly admitting that you never wanted to do it in the first place.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I look into the mechanics of saying no and how best to do it without burning any bridges!


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[…] month, I talked about the importance of knowing when to say no. This month, I look at how to say no without burning any bridges. It’s not rocket science, […]