Learning to say no to others

2009-02-24 00:00

Many times, I have found my brother from another mother at a crossroads. It’s not that his junkheap of a car had stalled, as usual, and he needed help. It is because he had been asked to do something he really didn’t want to do or had no time for, and found it difficult to say “no”.

He told me that he would feel guilty if he said “no”. Jokingly, I told him to advertise himself as “volunteer 24/7, phone call away”. While I was teasing him, he confided in me that the situation makes him feel as helpless as the Zim dollar. Many times, he has had to make unwanted concessions or meet unreasonable demands. “How do you say ‘no’ without losing the deal or destroying that valued relationship,” he lamented.

One time, his boss asked him to work overtime when he had planned to take his wife and children for a Friday-night outing. And when his long-awaited loan was approved by the finance office, his friend asked him to lend him some money from that loan. Another time his brother asked him if he could borrow his newly bought cellphone for a week.

I advised him that he shouldn’t be afraid to say no. It doesn’t reject the person, it simply refuses the request and there are many ways of doing that without feeling guilty about it. The first thing is to identify the emotional hooks that are getting in your way. If a friend or relative asks you for a favour, are you afraid that he or she will never speak to you again if you say no? What if you say no to an employer’s request? Do you fear being victimised or fired? If you say no to your lecturer, do you anticipate getting a bad grade in the course? After identifying the negative expectations, the next step is to be realistic about them. If you say no to a relative or friend’s request, they will be disappointed but your relationship is not contingent on this. He or she will likely respect you more for having said no clearly.

It’s normally reasonable to refuse when it’s inconvenient for you. If you agree you will probably feel dissatisfied with yourself or even angry and resent the other person, and this may come across non-verbally, in missing deadlines, being unpleasant or silent. When I am in a difficult situation and am unsure of what I want to say or how I want to say it, I always give myself time by telling the other person: “Can I get back to you? I will have to check my schedule,” or “I have had a few things come up and need to deal with those first.” In some cases, no matter how you say no, some people persist like a scratched DVD movie. You may need to get their attention by touching them and saying: “You seem to be invested in getting me to agree, but I have said no and I really mean it,” or “I would like to do that for you but I have other commitments.”

It also doesn’t help to give “a convoy of excuses” when saying no. Rather look directly at the person and be to the point with a sense of assertiveness in your voice and manner. Also make sure that your non-verbal gestures mirror your verbal messages. You should make eye contact and your tone should be non-apologetic. Often people unknowingly nod their heads or smile and even sound apologetic when attempting to decline or refuse a request. This gives the other person a feeling that he or she still has a chance with you.

I related to my brother from another mother how my sister found herself baby-sitting our neighbour’s children even though she never wanted to. I had heard her complaining: “I really don’t want to spend Saturday night baby-sitting our neighbour’s three children. But when she asked me I couldn’t say no. So I just said ‘yes’. I wish I had time to think of an excuse.”

In some cases, provide an alternative or suggestions: “ I cannot do that today but how about next time?” or “How about asking so-and-so instead?” and “I won’t be able to do that, but I can show you how to do it.”

Saying no doesn’t mean that you are unco-operative or arrogant; it’s recognising your limits and being selective in what you choose to do.

• Tiema Haji Muindi is a Kenyan journalist based in Durban.

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