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How do I learn to say no?

Learn to say no by setting values and aspirations.
Use them to decide when to say ‘yes’.
Refuse with compassion,helpfully and positively.

My immediate response to this question is to ask whether or not I should say no at all. As we leave the Christmas holiday season, I reflect on the number of ‘asks’ that have come our way.

  • Requests to donate to charity from the doorstep to the internet
  • Invitations to go to this gathering or that
  • Requests from business colleagues wanting to clear their own decks before the holiday
  • Appeals for help with village Christmas and New Year events
  • Requests for lifts to and collections fromAnd many more…

Most of the time, we answered in the affirmative. However, it was often through gritted teeth. We sensed we were put upon in the name of a celebration that has lost its true meaning.

When not to say no

I wouldn’t say I like saying no. It goes against the grain because, at its heart, it is negative. To say no has an insidious negative impact on those who do, as well as disappointing those who ask. And, besides, we live in a world of communities. To help out others in our communities is probably an essential part of our social values and responsibility.

I suspect, also, that by consistently refusing requests from others, we find it harder to ask for help ourselves. And in this day and age, we need to ask for help all the time. (See Amanda Palmer’s TED talk.)

On the other hand, saying ‘yes’ to everything has its downsides too.

Saying ‘yes’ is not for everyone.

How often are you asked to do something in your business or personal life which detracts from your time and your important life goals? Warren Buffet hit the nail on the head when he said:

‘Really successful people say no to almost everything.’

And there is truth in the old saw that if you want something done, ask a busy person. You are occupied because you are good at what you do, thus creating further demand for your skills or sweat. If you always say ‘yes’ and deliver, you risk entering a virtuous (or vicious) spiral. You become known as a fixer, the person who gets things done. As a result, you attract more requests for help.

So, saying no is a simple and effective way of getting more time for yourself. It means you achieve your aspirations, and let go of an overly cluttered life. However, saying no can lead to a selfish, inward-looking worldview, so needs to be done with caution and sensitivity.

When and how to say no

What should be your criteria when responding to a request for help from someone else? The short answer is your own life goals. Maybe a request fulfils a purpose. For instance, an invitation to volunteer in the local arts centre could meet your objective of becoming more involved in the community.

At other times a request may not fit in with your own life goals and will distract you. And so your personal goals and values provide you with excellent criteria for when to say no.

This may seem a self-centred approach unless your goals and values are compassionate, humanitarian and work to your strengths. In business, such decisions can be more manageable. Typically, your business goals will provide clarity about the activities you will undertake.

Saying no to charities

Charity is another area in which saying no is often tricky. It’s doubtful if we would have any time or money for ourselves if we agreed to every charitable request. However, saying no can often lead to intense feelings of guilt and shame. A philanthropy plan, linked to your life aspirations, will be beneficial in deciding when to say ‘yes’ and no.

Spend some time thinking through what causes you want to be involved with. Identify organisations working in that area, select one or two for your attention and stick with them. When next asked by a charity that isn’t on your list, you can say no with ease and explain why.

In my own case, I want to give the young a chance. I also have an interest in education and fighting hunger. So, Mary’s Meals meets my criteria. The organisation works in schools in lesser-developed countries, where the charity build kitchens on school sites. Volunteers trains parents to cook a square meal for each student who comes to school every day. This encourages pupils to attend and prevents hunger from getting in the way of learning. I support it and can say no to other charitable requests with ease.

Saying no with grace and compassion

It goes without saying that saying no without care can damage or demean. There is an art to saying no with grace and compassion through conversation. Reflecting back the request ensures no-one is belittled. Explaining how to meet the demand differently, faster, or through someone else provides insight and personal growth.

At the same time, it is salient to bear in mind that many who desperately need help won’t ask for it. Pride, fear of rejection or lack of self-worth are powerful detergents to asking for help. Here, it may be in everyone’s interest to be aware of what’s going on and volunteer assistance when needed. Once again, whether you do will depend on your values and goals.

In conclusion

How do you learn to say no? You formulate your own life values and aspirations. You decide when to say ‘yes’ and when to decline, based on your values and aspirations. You learn the art of empathy and compassion, and you refuse in a way that is helpful and positive.

(Illustration: Tim Bulmer)

This post has been adapted from Jeremy Deedes’ original answer to a question on asked by a Quora member.
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