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Winifred Lender: Learning to Say No and Feel Good About It

We are flooded with requests daily. They come from strangers, acquaintances, friends and family.

For example, we are given the “opportunity” to buy an item from a telemarketer, donate our time or money to an agency, join a group for dinner, help out our sibling, or assist a colleague with a work-related issue. The deluge of asks can feel overwhelming.

To combat this request overload, we tend to adopt a characteristic pattern of responding to them. For many of us, the pattern is to try to say yes to the request or some part of it. We endeavor to please people and say something along the lines of: “I think I can,” “I am really busy, but if you really need me, I will do it” or “I am not sure if I can do all you are asking, but I will try.” All these responses tend to decrease the initial surge of anxiety we anticipate we will feel if we decline a request.

After agreeing to help, we are typically reinforced by the person seeking our assistance, will probably believe that the person asking for our help now holds us in high esteem. We also may experience a sense of relief that we have made a decision to help and no longer need to ruminate about what to do. However, in short order we may start to feel annoyed that we have said yes to something we may not have wanted to do or had the time to do. The initial relief can be replaced with regret.

Some people speak of feeling victimized by their need to say yes and inability to say no to requests. They report feeling irritable with those who made the request and annoyed every time they are reminded that they could have said no. Feeling powerless to say no can lead to a lack of sense of control, which is compounded when we are busy and stressed.

The drive to avoid saying no to a request, even to strangers, is strong and is borne out in research. Researchers at the University of Waterloo found that participants in a study were so eager to respond positively to a request from researchers that they were willing to engage in unethical behavior (deface a library book by writing a word on one of the pages). While some of the participants initially protested, the drive to please the researcher was so strong that 50 percent complied with the request. In addition, researchers have found that when the request is made face-to-face, people experience more regret about saying no and are more likely to say yes.

The mechanism driving us to say yes is our inherent human need/desire to connect with others. We are programmed to please and connect with others. In addition, we hold an attribution bias that we will be judged more harshly than we actually are if we say no to a request. Thus we assume others will see us in a very negative light if we say no, when in fact, the others will really not judge us so negatively. Our drive to connect and our attributional belief combine to push us toward pleasing others and avoiding saying no.

Research by Julianne Wurm and colleagues show that there is difference along gender lines in the likelihood we will say no to a request. Her research found that women anticipate it will be harder to say no to a request and actually experience more regret when saying no. This is especially the case if the request comes from another woman. In contrast, men anticipate they will not feel badly about saying no, and report after the fact that they did not feel badly about saying no. The gender differences may be the result of differential conditioning and reinforcement afforded to men and women whereby women feel they need to please others more.

Given our inherent drive to say yes, what can be done to swim against this current that pushes us toward saying yes, when we really want or need to say no? Although it may be initially hard to change how we respond to requests and still feel as though we are good people, we can begin to examine our response pattern and evaluate if we want to make a change. We can exert change in our characteristic response pattern and move toward one that is more flexible and responsive to our needs and wants.

Below are some principles to consider when you are confronted by a request.

» Be aware of your characteristic pattern for responding to a request, and know that while this may feel most comfortable, it may not be healthy. Journal or list recent occasions in which you have agreed to a request and how you have felt as a result of it. List the negatives and positives of the experience to truly explore how it made you feel.

» Try to anticipate a request and mentally prepare for it. Consider if your friend will ask you again to help with an event and begin to think about if you want to help.

» Practice saying no to requests so that you become more comfortable with hearing yourself say this.

» Be mindful and focused on what is being asked when a request is made. Often times we become anxious and start thinking about what will happen if we say yes or no and fail to fully attend to what is being asked.

» Do not rush to make a decision. If you are unsure about what you want to do, ask for more time to think about it. Do not be pressured into making a decision before you feel ready.

» Recognize that a no may not be heard or initially accepted. Practice being tough and sticking with your no by repeating the word no in your response.

» Make sure your facial expressions and tone of voice match the message you are sending.

» Remember that you will overestimate the upset someone will feel if you say no.

» Affirm yourself for saying no. Reinforce yourself for making a choice that is initially uncomfortable by saying no but one that may be better for you in the long run.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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