Stop saying "yes" when you want to say "no"
A Cup of Ambition is a weekly newsletter filled with thought-provoking essays, interviews, links, and reflections on all things related to working motherhood. If you’re new here, I hope you’ll subscribe by clicking on the button below.
A few weeks ago, I met with a longstanding client of mine. Nicole is a successful small business owner and she was feeling very frustrated by a recent interaction with a persistent vendor—let’s call him Dave—who kept trying to push a sale when she was clearly uninterested.
As we started our coaching session, her phone pinged. It was Dave again. He wanted to have one more conversation with her.
Nicole: Should I agree to just one more meeting?
Me: Do you want to meet with him again?
Nicole: No! But what do I say to this guy to make him understand I’m serious?
As we coached through crafting a direct and concise response, we unearthed a larger issue: Even though she wanted him to stop contacting her, she wanted to be “nice” about it. He was annoying her and repeatedly overstepping her boundaries, yet she was worried about being perceived as a “bitch”. Why, she asked me with evident exacerbation, did she care so much about this?
I would venture to guess that this is a situation that 99.9% of the women reading this newsletter have encountered at some point (and almost certainly multiple points) in their lives. We apologize when we aren’t actually sorry. We say ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’. We smile when we want to scowl. We hide our preferences because we don’t want to be demanding. We sacrifice our true feelings because we don’t want to be difficult. We want people to like us even though we don’t like them.
We recognize this is illogical and often detrimental. And, still…. It’s a hard pattern to break.
Why do we do this?
The desire to please others is an innate human tendency, likely rooted in evolutionary advantage. Generally speaking, helping others is a good thing—until, of course, it comes at the expense of ourselves. Unhelpful messaging and fear of judgment make it harder for us to draw appropriate boundaries.
Socialization: Helpfulness, rule-following, and conforming to others’ expectations are prosocial behaviors that are reinforced throughout childhood by parents, teachers, and other helpful adults. On the flip side, many kids are taught that when they assert themselves, they are being demanding or “difficult”. The problem is that different situations call for different reactions and this ambiguity is confusing to kids.
Gender norms: The reality is that girls are much more likely than boys to hear the messages listed above. The stakes are higher for girls and women, as they are judged disproportionately harshly when they are perceived as unhelpful (when was the last time you heard a man described as bossy, high-maintenance, or bitchy?)
Fear: This is the big one. We fear that we’ll be judged, that people will be mad at or disappointed in us, and sometimes—in particularly dire situations—we fear for our own safety. It’s a human instinct to want to be liked, but sometimes we put our fear of being disliked above our own needs and well-being.
How do we break this cycle?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have to set better boundaries or else we’re going to burn out. When you’re asked to take on a new project or initiative, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review recommends asking yourself the following three questions:
What’s in it for me? Are you developing new skills, building new relationships, or increasing your profile? If not, are you setting yourself up to be resentful if you say yes?
Do I have the bandwidth? How much time will this take? The author suggests adding a 20% buffer to whatever number you come up with. Then ask yourself honestly: “Do I really have the time for this?”
What will I have to give up to take this on? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost? Is it still worth it?
Finally, be mindful when delegating projects or tasks to others. It can be easy to delegate down to someone who seems eager and passionate, but it’s worth checking in to make sure they aren’t taking on too much. If you get the sense that they are, it’s important to help them prioritize.
With our kids
As our session was ending, Nicole asked: “So, is this the inevitable plight of girls and women everywhere? How do I make sure my two daughters—and my son, for that matter—don’t experience this same thing?” Great question.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach nuance in parenting. For example, we want our kids to be polite, but not pushovers. We talk to them about the importance of using a kind tone and, yet, there are also times that call for a forceful “no”. We want our kids to stop arguing with us and just f*cking listen already(!), but also be questioning and assertive when they need to be. So, the first step is being mindful of the mixed messages we sometimes deliver and modulating them to ensure we’re capturing the nuance.
My second recommendation is to have open conversations about this topic. You can start by asking your kids, “have you ever felt pressured to say ‘yes’ to something because you were worried what other people would think about you?” Listen to what they say. If they have trouble answering, try sharing your own stories. Empathize and let them know that you’ve struggled with this, too. Together, you can brainstorm and then practice ways to say no in the future.
In all contexts
Be very aware of what you’re modeling. If your kids/team see you constantly violating your own boundaries, they won’t learn to trust and enforce theirs. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but it’s crucially important. Enlist your partner, friend, or coach to help keep you honest with this.
Tips for saying no
Be direct. “No” is a complete sentence. If that feels too abrupt or harsh to you, try:
“I’m honored, but I can’t.”
“I’m not able to take on anything else right now.”
“Unfortunately I just don’t have the bandwidth for that.”
“I’m not interested, but thank you for thinking of me.”
Don’t offer excuses. When you tell people that “something suddenly came up”, they’re likely to ask again.
Don’t prolong the inevitable. If you know you don’t want to do it, don’t say “maybe” or “I’ll think about it”. You’re dragging out your own misery and falsely raising the other persons’ hopes (and possibly preventing them from finding another solution to their want/need in a timely manner).
Remember—though saying “no” might be awkward or uncomfortable in the moment, it’s better than the inevitable feelings of anger, resentment, and irritation that come when we agree to do something we didn’t want to do in the first place.
I want to cover what’s important to YOU. I welcome reader input in deciding what and who to write about. Email me at drjessicawilen [at] gmail [dot] com and put “newsletter idea” in the subject.
Speaking only for myself, as a Dave, I know how to take no for an answer.
This was a great post. I don't have a problem saying no (nor do I get hung up on what people think of me when I do; probably neither of these statements is much of a surprise), but I do often lack the *language* I'd like around what I'm trying to say. Sometimes I even Google, "how to say no to..." whatever it may be because I literally need the words. When in doubt, I go with, "Thanks for reaching out, but I'm not interested" or "Thanks, but it's not a good fit right now." Or whatever. If people don't like it -- or me -- that's their shit, not mine. Boundaries 🔥