I was talking to a two-year-old the other day, and you know what they told me? “No”. A lot. This finely-honed skill possessed by a typical two-year-old is unfortunately part of what helps them earn that “Terrible Two’s” reputation so inextricably associated with their age. I say “unfortunately”, because saying no is a valuable skill, and a critical part of living a happy, balanced life. Of course, as an adult you may want to use a little more finesse than a boundary-testing toddler (something we’ll explore below), but the simple fact is that knowing when to say no in life can be one of the most positive things you can do.
When To Say Yes To Saying No
There are lots of situations in which it’s okay to say no, and some in which it’s actually quite beneficial. First we’re going to talk about saying no as positive self-preservation, and then we’ll talk about saying no as a necessity of consumer-driven modern life. If, like me, you’re a person who has a reasonable amount of compassion and even a slightly giving nature, you’ll understand varying degrees of the “self-destructive helper” behavior. What we’re referring to here is of course the “let me drop everything I’m doing and fix your problem for you” phenomena. This is probably the most easily identifiable form of what we’re talking about. It takes a lot of other forms, but we’re going to use one real-world example, and then explore why it’s really a bigger problem than it seems, and talk about some solutions.
The Computer Guy
For me personally, this takes an amusing form that the more computer-savvy amongst you may be familiar with. Or maybe you’re on the other end of things, and are one of the self-proclaimed “Dummies” that all those books are aimed at. In any case, I work a lot at a computer, and have taught myself how to do things I need to do, like using a word processing program, basic image editing, and simpler aspects of web design. I have no programming skills, and limited hardware knowledge, but whom do all my friends call when they have a computer problem? Yup. And why do they do it? It’s partly their misconceptions about what I know, but it’s more because they know I’m patient and helpful. But over time, this free help desk service of mine became time consuming and distracting. I needed a solution.
Humor as a Tool for Positive Change
When I realized how big a problem this might be a few years ago, I at first relied on humor. With repeat offenders, I’d yuck it up saying “It’s funny how if you know a plumber, you’d never call him and say ‘hey, I have some free time this weekend, why don’t you come over and work on my septic field’, but if you know a computer guy, you have no qualms about saying ‘hey, I’ve got some time this evening, can you come over and help me re-install Windows?’ “. This was actually pretty effective, but then there were the friends that committed something more like ongoing misdemeanors, like calling and saying “hey, I can’t open this email attachment” or “Damn, I’ve been trying to fix this Word document for like 15 minutes, can you take a look at it?” With these people, I also used a little humor. An old tech support joke is to say “Did you try the RTFM Protocol?” That of course is an acronym for “Read The Freakin’ Manual”. I’d then patiently and politely instruct them to see if their program had a little bar at the top that featured the word “Help”. I’d walk them through how to use it. It’s AMAZING how many people don’t use the “Help” files provided with all major software products. And how quickly people tend to give up when confronted with problems. And that’s the real issue here.
How Saying Yes Can Do Damage
So we’ve kept things on a slightly amusing note here, but the little anecdotes above should make evident what the problem really is. While being helpful is a great quality, being lazy isn’t. And a motivated, helpful person is likely to attract a lot of under-motivated, needy people. Not BAD people, just people who haven’t figured out some of the more fun parts of the game of life by meeting simple challenges and growing from the experience. So the fact is, there are several basic problems that can arise by not knowing when to say “no”:
- You’re probably adding unnecessary stress to your own experience
- You’re preventing the person you’re helping from building simple self-reliance
- You’re probably doing this out of some sense of guilt that you might want to resolve.
Like we said, being helpful is a great quality, but a simple indicator of whether or not you’re providing “good” help is whether or not you feel stressed out by doing it. If you ARE feeling stressed out by doing it, the first thing is to learn to recognize this feeling, and then learn that it really is okay to say “no” when you need to. And it’s helpful to have language for doing this, because it’s easy to sound hostile, dismissive, or uncaring when someone asks for help and you deny them. We’re not going to get into that “guilt thing” we mentioned above, it’s beyond the scope of what we’re addressing here. But here are a few commonly suggested ideas for how to say no:
Language For Saying No
Be positive, THEN say no. Stay calm, and say something like “Wow, I know how frustrating that can be. I wish I could help, but [INSERT PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE REASON. THERE ARE MANY]. The real problem is often that we’re simply too harried ourselves, and respond with bristliness and frustration. Which doesn’t feel very good on either end.
Be positive, then DEFER. Sometimes, it’s entirely possible that you would LIKE to help, but the timing is bad. Find out if the problem can be addressed later, and plan a time to do it. Often the person with the problem just needed a break so they could reframe things, and in the interim they figure it out anyway! If not, no hard feelings are generated either way.
Be positive, and then PASS THE BUCK. One of the worst kinds of help is when a SECOND person who doesn’t know what they’re doing gets involved with a problem. Know your abilities, and repress your inner know-it-all. Tell them you have NO IDEA how to tackle the problem, and then ask aloud “Hmmm, I wonder if we know anybody who actually knows how to do this?”
Saying No To Salespeople, Charities, and Strangers
Modern consumer-driven life has really become ugly. The most effective salespeople and telemarketers know that shame, guilt, and persistence are their most powerful tools. Shame, with the implication that somehow you can’t afford something; guilt, used as a tool by pushing the limits of your basic courtesy and decency; and persistence, in the form of mindlessly plodding forward as if you never said no. There’s a simple rule I rely on here, and I am unbending in its application. Be courteous and polite until the other party violates the ground rules of courteous interaction. Then detachedly terminate the interaction. Here’s a typical example, with a little flourish for those of you who feel compelled to be more expressive. Recently a Comcast salesman came to my door. The exchange went something like this:
LOUD, AGGRESSIVE KNOCKING AT DOOR (Already a violation of courtesy)
I answer the door, and the sales guy jumps right in:
“Hi, I’m with Comcast, and we’re offering some great specials including free installation!”
I reply calmly:
“Thanks, but I don’t like television, and am already quite pleased with my internet service”
“Really? Comcast has the fastest, most affordable internet service around, what service are you with?”
You see, at this point, he’s already blown it. Rude knocking, ignoring what I said and plodding on. And then being JUST PLAIN NOSY.
“Wow, you’re really rude. Thanks, I’m not interested, but good luck.”
He started another sales pitch so I said:
“I wish your rudeness weren’t forcing me to close the door in your face.”
He actually started another pitch.
DOOR SLOWLY CLOSES AS COMCAST GUY KEEPS TALKING
I pondered asking him how much it sucks to have such a crappy job, annoying people like me all evening, but I don’t know how effective it is to try to expand people’s awareness. For instance, an acquaintance of mine has a lot of patterned responses to panhandlers. One of them is to say “Would I be walking to work right now if I had money to give to YOU?” Clearly, that’s neither kind nor productive. But on occasion I’ll actually turn the tables on a salesman or telemarketer, and ask them if they love what they do, or if circumstance drove them to it. If they clarify that they ENJOY being obnoxious and aggressive, that’s one thing, but occasionally a quick human chat lets the other person apologize while sharing their frustration. Mostly though, I think this strategy is more about our own ego, so I generally just leave it in the “courteous response and closure” framework. So in the end, saying no is really quite simple. Just make sure you’re clear on why you’re saying no, and then do it politely, without excuses, and without hostility. That hostility usually just comes from our OWN sense of being overwhelmed, so just remember to nip it in the bud. And if you need to delay the answer in order to compose yourself, just say “Maybe, but let me get right back to you”. Gather your wits, get back to them, and say NO.
Some of you may still struggle with this. Here’s a permission slip: