In a May blog, I encouraged you to start your journey to setting limits with others by attending to four basic steps: (1) accept your right to say no (2) uncover organizational beliefs around values and work/life balance (3) learn from past history (what does your environment tell you about possible consequences to saying no) and (4) anticipate the feeling of loss.
Once you have the made decision to set limits by saying no, the approach or the way in which you say it is equally important to do well. Here are the nine things to consider in your delivery.
1. Give yourself breathing room – decide how you will respond (the actual words) before you get the question. In many instances, we catch wind of the upcoming request for a commitment long before it occurs. In other cases, we have said “yes” so frequently that we become the first place a person goes when they need help (and really, can you blame him/her?). Both scenarios give us a “heads up” before the request hits us. So, decide early on the words you will use in your response or make a commitment to some sort of “waiting” language every time. Dr. Judith Sills in her article, “The Power of No! How Setting Limits Sets You Free,” (Psychology Today, December 2013) suggests that you ‘replace your automatic Yes with ‘I’ll think about it.’ This puts the person on notice that you need to weigh important factors before making the decision and that if you decide to refuse, the No response is a product of careful decision making, not anything else.
2. Make sure your body language supports your position. Use direct and warm eye contact, head held high, shoulders back, normal hand gestures, calm voice, appropriate voice volume – whatever your body does when you are relaxed and confident. If you don’t know what you look like, ask others and purposely mimic that body language and tone of voice. 93% of our communication involves those elements, not word choices.
3. Don’t apologize and don’t make excuses. Apologies suggest that the other person is entitled to expect you to grant them the favor and perform the task. Excuses are often dishonest: it’s not that you can’t do it; it’s that you choose not to do it. Both of these do not reflect that you value your time and that you make intentional choices about what you do with it.
4. Use softened “No” language. Again, there are choices and different ways you can express “no.” Dr. Sills suggests, ‘I’m not comfortable with that. I’d prefer not to;’ as some examples. Give yourself a wide variety of options and rehearse them. You may feel very nervous inside when you start to assert yourself; try as best you can to remain calm on the outside and manage your feelings.
5. Express what you can do; use “and” instead of “but.” Help can include a number of things such as acknowledging the person’s situation, understanding why they came to you, and if appropriate, offering other ideas. Again, you may need to give yourself some “think” time to really determine what you want to do. The person may only have one thing in mind; you may be able to offer support in other creative ways.
6. Be ready for resistance. Particularly if your tendency has been to cave under pressure, don’t be surprised when you get shock or push-back in response. Remain firm and repeat. Don’t back down and hold fast to your values and principles. In the end, this person will learn some valuable information about your desires and needs.
7. Accept the consequences. You have a right to say no and others have the right not to like it. They may express their disapproval by distancing from you or excluding you from activities. On a personal level, you will have to accept the consequences. On a professional level, you may have to be ready to address the conflict if their behavior negatively impacts your ability to successfully perform your job. Recognize that saying “no” to your boss has to be handled differently so as not to be seen as insubordination.
8. Keep communicating. By remaining friendly and “normal” in your communication, you will reinforce your desire to have the right to say “no” as a normal part of your working relationship. You may, however, have to surface this issue directly and gain commitment from the other person that he or she, too, sees saying “no” as a desired characteristic of the relationship.
9. Don’t let others misinterpret your “no” and label you as negative. Dr. Sills in her article notes that “negativity is a chronic attitude; a pair of emotional glasses through which some people get a cloudy view of the world….It’s an energy sapper. Negative people may douse the enthusiasm of others, but rarely inspire them to action.” She further explains that, “where negativity is an ongoing attitude. No is a moment of clear choice. It announces, however indirectly, something affirmative about you…The No that is an affirmation of self implicitly acknowledges personal responsibility.” No becomes:
- A tool by which we establish and maintain boundaries;
- A recognition of our own limits and desire to take charge of setting them with others and ourselves (self discipline);
- A building block to interpersonal trust with others as it often expresses your principles and values; and
- An avenue to do what is most important to help you reach your goals.
As with any new behavioral change, start small with individuals where you know you will have a good chance of success and minimal negative consequences if you get a bad reaction. Be sure and reward yourself for taking new steps in assertiveness and getting back in the driver’s seat of your life and work.