How to say “No” without stomping your foot

I’m a parent who is forever grateful the “no” phase is over. Don’t get me wrong, my kids and I routinely battle with the word no, but the days of constant arguing are over. I can’t think of a worse phase but also a more eye-opening phase.

When my daughter was 2 years old she would stomp her foot, bunch up her fists and say, very emphatically “No!” and boldly stare me down. You gotta admire that kind of audacity. As a parent, I wanted her spirit to remain in tact while also harnessing that willfulness.

Learning to say no and teaching someone how to say no graciously is hard. As adults we lose that ability and start to think no is a bad word. Why is that? Saying “no” isn’t mean, it isn’t cruel or hurtful – it’s actually very freeing. When you say “yes” but really mean no, you’re only doing yourself a disservice because now you’ve committed to something that your heart isn’t in.

But that’s easier said than done isn’t it? Learning to say no again is a choice. Our lives are made up of expectations, obligations and choices. Many of us blur the line among those three words. Here’s what it really boils down to:

Expectations: Rules or actions you or someone else have put on you that made you uncomfortable.

Obligations: Actions you or someone else have put on you that made you uncomfortable.

Choices: Rules or Actions only YOU have the right to exercise.

Want an example? You’ve been at college or work all day and you now have a voice mail asking you to help a friend from school with a project that they really should be doing alone.

Obligation: The project needs to get done.

Expectation: It’s your job to help your friend because you have picked up the slack in the past for them.

Choice: You can choose to speak with your friend about it (“I’m sorry you are having a rough time with this project, but I’m unable to help you with it.”) OR you can choose to do the project and further exhaust and frustrate yourself. The only one losing in that scenario is you.

But all of this takes practice…. As Linda D Tillman, PhD states in “The Power of Saying, ‘No’,” many of us grow up to be people pleasers. The word “No” drops out of our vocabulary, and we substitute lots of ways to be agreeable and keep the other person happy. Saying “No” to the authority figures is not expected. And underneath it all we believe that saying “No” can cost us a lot in our adult life. She suggests these six steps:

1. When someone makes a request, it is always OK to *ASK FOR TIME TO THINK IT OVER*. In thinking it over, remind yourself that the decision is entirely up to you.

2. Use nonverbal cues to underline the “No.” Make sure that your voice is firm and direct. Look into the person’s eyes as you say, “No.” Shake your head “No,” as you say, “No.”

3. Remember that “No,” is an honorable response. If you decide that “No,” is the answer that you prefer to give, then it is authentic and honest for you to say, “No.”

4. If you say, “Yes,” when you want to say, “No,” you will feel resentful throughout whatever you agreed to do. This costs you energy and discomfort and is not necessary if you just say, “No” when you need to.

5. If you are saying, “No,” to someone whom you would help under different circumstances, use an empathic response to ease the rejection. For example, to your friend who needs you to keep her child while she goes to the doctor, you might say, “No, Susie, I can’t keep Billie for you. I know it must be hard for you to find someone at that time of day, but I have already made lunch plans and I won’t be able to help you.”

6. Start your sentence with the word, “No.” It’s easier to keep the commitment to say, “No,” if it’s the first word out of your mouth.

When I fist started saying “no” I had to write the words: Expectations, Obligations, Choices on a post-it note and take it with me everywhere. I would measure each situation against those words so I could rationalize my choice.

Try it…. I think you’ll like it.


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