Those of us who have felt pressured to reciprocate favors, take on extra tasks at work, down one more JELL-O shot at a party, perform menial elementary-school tasks, help acquaintances move and/or bleach a son’s baseball pants an hour before the game know that Nancy’s advice is easier said than done.
My sister and I were lamenting our difficulties with the word the other day. An artist and college-art teacher, she has two exhibitions coming up early next year, and will need to scale back her extracurricular to allow for studio time. She has been practicing her “No” for weeks.
For my part, I’ve had a rough couple of months, and want to keep my obligations minimal so I can de-stress. I also want the freedom to visit the sons who have left the roost.
After comparing notes about our challenges, we contemplated why so many of us have difficulty turning down requests. And so, I came up with 10 different reasons why “NO” can seem the hardest word (sorry, “Sorry”):
1. We see a genuine need and want to handle the request. It feels good to feel helpful and useful, and even – depending on the demand – to be a hero.
2. We think we’ll enjoy the task or opportunity, and it’s worth jamming up our schedule to take it on. Fair enough. We just need to remember not to complain about how busy we are afterwards. No one wants to hear us whine about our own bad choices.
3. We worry that “No” will hurt our careers. Oftentimes, we must say “Yes,” even when the task seems heinous or overburdens our workload. It’s important to appear ambitious, hard-working and part of the company team. However, as Jim Carrey pointed out in the 2008 film, being a Yes Man has its downside, too. No one should serve as a doormat.
4. We fear that if we say “No,” we’ll lose future opportunities. Those with freelance careers understand this all-too-well. If you turn down a job, the potential employer must find someone else to take it. And if that someone else does it better, faster or cheaper, they will get the repeat business. As such, last summer, I completed an editing job at 6 am on a Swedish-hotel computer, just to ensure I would get the next assignment.
5. We over-estimate the time we have available for the additional task, or underestimate the time it will consume. I think most of us have, at one point or another, erred in this area. A few years back, some foreign friends asked me to read their daughter’s master’s thesis, which she needed to write in English. I had no idea that the thesis would top 10,000 words on a complicated subject. I might have said “No” or set a fair price if I had foreseen the favor’s scope.
6. We need to be needed. Face it, when someone asks us for a favor, tells us they value our expertise or could trust only us with the task, we feel flattered. I think this is especially true for those who swap careers for diaper duty.
7. We want to forge a relationship – either business or personal – with the person needing our help. My husband agreed to help me with a fly-fishing article when we were “just friends.” See what I mean?
8. We want to maintain good relations with the person making the ask. Perhaps this explains the high teenage-pregnancy rate. Let’s attribute some drug and alcohol overdoses to this, too. However, it can be true for people of all ages, particularly parents. In fact, my sister just pointed out that my son’s request for a new car falls into this category. (She’s right, of course.)
9. We feel guilty leaving friends/associates high and dry. Here’s where it gets especially tricky. Being asked for a favor doesn’t make us obligated to perform it. If the friend in need can’t find another sucker, it’s their problem, not ours. Repeat after me: “Sorry, but I can’t do it.”
10. We want people to think we are “nice,” and “nice” people do not say No. Several books have been written on this aspect of “No,” so instead of elaborating, I’ll just link to a few here, here and here. However, I’ll offer this recent example:
This past Saturday, my daughter and a friend had tentative plans. Since my husband wanted to watch a late-afternoon football game, I suggested Pea, the friend and I go to a movie at that time. She suggested a film we both wanted to see, and the friend countered with a film Pea had no interest in. She agonized over her reply, not wanting to hurt the friend’s feelings.
“Look, if you really don’t want to see that other movie, don’t agree to it,” I coached. “Reply again with the movie you want to see, or another idea, and make sure she knows you aren’t interested in her choice.”
“What if I tell her that something came up and I can’t go?” Pea asked. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“No, if you come up with a lame excuse of not being able to go out, and then run into her at the multiplex theatre, it will be even worse,” I said. I explained that this way, if the friend was adamant about her choice, she could invite someone else, as could Pea.
Pea and I ended up at the movie alone. (We loved it.) She is just thirteen and dealing with middle-school girls right now. My hope is that helping her learn “No” now will come in handy when she’s dating, as well as later, when she’s an employee, a spouse and a parent.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 16 Sept. 2013
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- Why do you feel guilty? (thetarotman.wordpress.com)