Nobody wants to be a dick who says no to a sincere request, especially if said request comes from a dependable friend or someone who pays you. Or even worse, if you owe that person a favor.
On a tangent, my husband was appalled when I hung up on Carnival Cruises during the solicitor’s scripted intro. (OK, maybe he was appalled that I didn’t even have the courtesy to say “no” before hanging up, but I was pregnantly hormonal and I was anxiously expecting a call from someone important. Sue me.)
Anyway, unless you’ve already flexed your “no” muscle for a while, your instinctual reaction is probably some combo of guilt and fear when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do.
So the worst happens: you say yes.
If you find yourself saying yes to someone, instantly regretting it, then kind of resenting that person later, find solace in the fact that this is normal.
As humans, we’re all born wanting to be accepted. It’s in our genes. Back in the day (when we were hunting our own food), we would literally get killed if we weren’t accepted by other people. We needed people to protect us and survive.
Now, that survival is less fatal, but the need is still there.
And so, more people say yes than you’d expect.
In fact, this amazing man named Jia Jiang, for his “100 Days of Rejection” project, decided to ask random people for random things for 100 days. He asked Krispy Kreme to arrange his donuts so they look like Olympic Rings. He asked a stranger if he could play soccer in the stranger’s backyard. He asked a cop if he could drive his police car. All of these people said yes to Jia.
Granted, these people were clearly being kind (and fun-loving) and the point of Jia’s experiment was to immunize himself from the pain of rejection so this example doesn’t perfectly apply here, but my point is, even in circumstances where you’d definitely expect people to say no, people say yes.
I’m saying yes commonplace. It’s the polite and nice and kind-spirited thing to do.
But here’s the thing. Now that we’re not being chased by a herd of lions, we can say no to people without risking our lives. In fact, it’s one of the quickest, if not THE quickest, ways to make more time for yourself.
Think about it. All those little unnecessary things that don’t serve you, but you do to serve OTHER people, really adds up.
Here’s a sample list of things I recently said no to, why I said no and the amount of time I freed up for myself as a result:
Editing someone’s cover letter and resume. This person asked me because I happen to be excellent at crafting job-application documents, but I said no because this person came of nowhere to ask for this favor after going MIA for about a year. Time freed up: 1-2 hours.
Reading someone’s script for a Power Rangers sequel. I’m not in entertainment, so I’m guessing this person wanted me to review since I edit stuff? I said no because, well, it would take me over a day to complete this one task. Time freed up: 10 hours. Probably more.
Jumping on a call with a chatty client, which would’ve inevitably turned into a discussion branching into five different tangents, for a short question that was easily answered via email. Time freed up: 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Grabbing lunch with a PR rep from a cosmetics company. I said no because they could easily send me a press kit and samples via email and snail mail. Time freed up: 1 hour, and that’s not even considering LA traffic.
It’s much easier to say no to someone you don’t know very well or doesn’t hold your financial destiny in their hands, so I’ll gloss over how to say no to those people.
But how about dear friends and colleagues and family? How do you decline without coming off as a selfish or irresponsible jerk?
Because we’re all kind on the inside, your first instinct might be to respond right away with some sort of “Hmmmm,” so you can send the message of “Of course I am considering this for you!” Even if you instantly utter “Ummm, let me think” all you’re going to look like is you’re making up an excuse.
If someone asks you to do something face to face, respond with some variation of “no” right away. An immediate response sends the message that you absolutely already know it can’t happen—and you’re not lyin’ about it.
Don’t give them an excuse—give them an alternative.
Remember, in the above paragraph, when I said you don’t want to make it look like you’re thinking of an excuse? That’s because you shouldn’t give them one. An excuse will only provide infinite opportunities for them to offer another time for you to do what they want you to do. For example, if you say “I’m so busy today!” they’ll come back with “How about tomorrow or next week?” (And let’s be real, you can’t say “I’ll be busy until all my children are married” even though that’s how you actually feel.)
Instead, decline politely, then if you feel so inclined, tell them you’ve been meaning to connect them with someone you know because of something they have in common. Maybe this person is pregnant and you know another pregnant person. Maybe this person is vegetarian and so is your friend who always complains that they’re feeling judged by meat-eaters. This is a win-win situation: you’ll become a super-connector, which everyone generally loves, and you’ll make more time for yourself! Note: you need to be quick on your feet for this tactic—and you need to make an intro only if you genuinely feel they’d get along. Don’t set them up with an ass!
Be refreshingly honest.
Sometimes, your real reason isn’t hurtful at all. In fact, it’s often much better than “I’m busy.” Let’s say someone invites you to their birthday party, which you know historically comprises keg stands and 100+ people. If I were in this situation, I’d tell them, “I get really anxious around so much strangers at once, but I’ll have something in the mail for you to celebrate!” (This is completely true.) Then I’d send them a card or whatever. It’s not inconsiderate—it’s honest, yet still thoughtful.
Say “don’t” instead of “can’t.”
Even science says to! In this research (which wasn’t exactly about saying no to people but saying it to oneself), saying I “don’t” was a lot more empowering and effective in refusing, say, chocolate cake during a diet phase, than saying “I can’t.” “I don’t” suggests eating cake isn’t who you are, while “I can’t” indicates you want to but aren’t letting yourself.
In a similar vein, telling someone you “don’t grab lunches during the work week” means you set a rule for yourself—but for all people, which is not offensive. “I can’t grab lunch” just sets yourself up for further, repeated requests.
This only works in certain situations, but it’s a good wording technique to keep in mind. This one seems to perform well in work situations.
Practice your graceful “no” in the mirror.
You’ll feel like a major weirdo but it helps if you’re socially awkward and overall scared of people. Cringe all you want, but if you practice you’ll feel more confident when it happens!