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How to Say "No" and Protect Your Energy

Assertiveness need not cost your relationships.


Imagine a world where you can only say “yes.” Your supervisor drops everything in your inbox even when you've worked through the weekend, you're doing everyone (except yourself!) a favor at the expense of your "me" time, and you rack up credit on purchases you don't even need just because it's your friends who asked. You swallow complaints at the tip of your tongue and you feel overwhelmed, stressed and used. You’re a bitter person; trapped in the limbo of other people’s needs, silently resentful of those who get to enjoy personal time.


Thank goodness you can say “no” then!


Oh, wait. You very rarely say “no”?


Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Asserting one’s boundaries is challenging, especially if there’s risk of offending or displeasing the other person. It can also make you feel guilty, particularly if you were trained in the art of being accommodating early in life. But newsflash: you’re not a superhero! You don’t have infinite time and energy. You have limitations --- and a right to self-care! Unless you learn how to defend your boundaries, and aim for some work-life balance, you won’t be able to create that version of you that’s productive and fulfilled.



But are there ways of saying “no” without becoming the villain? Yes. Consider the following simple ways to assert your boundaries:


Say “yes” to the goal, “no” to the way of getting there.


One way to soften a rejection is to first recognize and affirm the other person’s intentions.

Your friend wants to gift her husband with an expensive wristwatch, but you don’t want to lend her the cash? Start by conceding how thoughtful her intended gesture is. Your friend is less likely to feel offended when she can see that you sincerely understand where she’s coming from. But cap it with something like this: “I wish I can help you, but I don’t have the money right now. I know a good bargain place, would you like a referral?” You don’t commit when you don’t want to, but you’re still coming across as helpful.


Illustrate how interests will get jeopardized if you say “yes.”


People will only ask you to do something if they feel you’ll be helpful. But when you’re already overcommitted, overworked and sincerely disgruntled at the prospect of doing more, you’ll do harm by saying “yes.” A tactic to saying “no” sensitively is to show how it is not in their best interest to push you.


Explain gently but firmly how you’re the worst possible choice at the moment. For instance, if your boss wants you to take on work you don't have the bandwidth to do, say so. “I’d really love to do this for you, Mike, but am so overwhelmed with the last account you gave. I won’t be able to devote time to your project. If I say yes, the output might be late and substandard."


If the other person bulldozes you to a “yes” well, they were given fair warning!


Communicate the principles or ideals you live by.


One of the hard things about saying “no” is the risk that people demanding your time or effort will feel singled out by your refusal. “You said yes to Richard last week, how come you’re saying no to me now?” When people feel personally rejected, there’s a chance that the whole thing will get blown out of proportion.


To be safe, communicate the rule or principle that you live by, something indiscriminate, something that applies to whoever is asking the favor. Getting pushed to work on the weekend? “Am really sorry. As a rule, I spend the last Saturday of the month with my family.” When the rule doesn’t seem arbitrary, and seems like a simple mechanism to get some work-life balance, you soften the blow of a rejection.


Explain your reason for saying “no”, and propose an alternative.


There are valid reasons for saying “no,” and for as long as you’re dealing with people ethically, you don’t have to be ashamed of them. In fact, you might get surprised by how understanding others can be when a reasonable explanation is offered.


Consider the following:


“I want to but I am busy this week. How about next week?”


“I’m flattered that you’re asking me, but am afraid that’s not my area of expertise. Perhaps Sarah can do a better job?”


“I have to be honest with you; I don’t really like that sort of thing. Can we try something else?”


Gently but firmly share what is keeping you from saying “yes” --- and propose a positive alternative. It works --- and is perfect as a stress management tool too!


Do the “No --- for now.”


Good networkers know that you should never burn bridges or definitely close the door on an offer or request. You don’t know when you’ll need the other person’s help or expertise! In some occasions, the best approach to saying “no” is to adapt a “But-I’ll-keep-you-in-mind-if-something-comes-up” approach. “Not now, maybe later” can work if someone’s really persistent in getting your “yes.”


Just say “no.”

Then again, whoever said we have to overthink a "NO."


If you know that you have valid reasons for declining a demand, request or offer, there’s nothing wrong with speaking what you sincerely think. You need not apologize for saying “no”, or offer an excuse --- unless, of course, you’re declining a pre-agreed obligation. If you match your decline with non-verbal behavior that communicates assertiveness (not aggressiveness!), such as a smile, gentle tone and eye contact, then your “no” can come across as inoffensive.


So, how about it? Let's protect our energies by getting comfortable to say "no."


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