Getting to No

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Trying to please everybody all the time can result in a life lived in half measures. Learning to say no can bring you new focus and fulfillment.

Lynn Hoffman felt pulled in 100 different directions. Besides her full-time job as a communications specialist for a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, she taught modern dance classes at night and was enrolled in graduate school. Plus, she was newly married and settling into a new house. Meanwhile, little requests piled up: Would she help plan her cousin’s baby shower? Take on an extra project at work? Join her friends’ monthly book club?

“I was trying to be everything to everyone,” recalls Hoffman. “While I was technically doing everything, I didn’t feel really engaged with anything, because I didn’t have the time and energy each deserved.”

Hoffman was caught on what Susan Newman, PhD, calls the “Yes Treadmill.” “It’s ingrained in us from an early age that no is a negative word,” explains Newman, the author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It — and Mean It (McGraw-Hill, 2005). “As we get older, we’re afraid to say no because we fear people will view us as lazy, uncaring or selfish.”

In fact, saying no is liberating and empowering. It allows us to make more time in our lives for the activities in which we most want to engage. And, thankfully, it’s a skill we can develop with time and practice.

The Stress of Yes

When you always say yes, you can become an easy target for friends, family and coworkers who know you will always take a burden off their shoulders, says Jana Kemp, author of No! How One Simple Word Can Transform Your Life (American Management Association, 2005). And that can create stress and leave you brimming with anger and resentment.

Plus, each time you unconsciously dole out another yes, you’re saying no to a deeper (and often more enjoyable) engagement with your current commitments. That happened to Hoffman, who decided to postpone graduate school for one year. “I realized I wasn’t getting the rich, deep learning experience I sought because I hadn’t made room for it,” she says. “For a while, I wrestled with a sense of failure. But overall, I felt a great sense of relief and pride that I had made a tough, but necessary, decision.”

It’s all about setting boundaries, says Kemp. “It’s about being able to prioritize and gain a sense of control over your time and your life.”

Say No

How do you get started? The experts offer practical advice on how to learn to say this tiny but powerful word:

Stop and think. When faced with a request, our natural inclination is to blurt out a response without thinking. That’s why it’s vital to “stop and analyze” before you respond, says Newman. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself time to analyze your current commitments — even if that means asking for more time to consider the request.

Gut check. Determining if no is the appropriate response begins with your gut. “If your stomach tenses, that tells you something,” explains Kemp. He suggests following up your gut response with a few self-directed questions: “Do I have time? What is the purpose of the request? Am I going to be angry for agreeing? Is it something I want to do?”

Never tell a lie. When declining such requests, be honest. “We associate a lot of guilt with saying no,” Newman says. “The whole objective of learning to say no is to free yourself of that guilt, and lying just compounds the guilt you already feel.” Keep it polite, straightforward and honest with a simple phrase such as, “I wish I could, but I can’t.”

Be assertive. Don’t pepper your response with disclaimers, explanations and tentativeness. “No is a complete sentence,” says Kemp. “The longer you talk, the more people hear ‘yes.’” Rambling on will open the door for more discussion.

And don’t apologize for saying no. “Most people’s inclination is to say ‘I’m sorry’ when they say no, and that immediately puts you in the wrong and on the defense,” Newman says. Rather than saying “sorry,” try this: “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to help you with that.”

Also, use an assertive tone and firm body language — make direct eye contact and stand up straight — to convey and reinforce your no.

Stay focused. In the weeks following her decision to take a leave of absence from graduate school, Hoffman had to fight her instinct to immediately fill up the newfound “extra time.” She caught herself googling “Taiko drum lessons” and planning for major house projects. “I really had to remember to say no, even to myself, and value the downtime as an accomplishment unto itself,” she recalls. “I will always have a full life, but I am learning to be aware of my priorities and thoughtful about just how full is full enough.”

Colby Johnson is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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