I Can Relate

The joys and challenges of relating with others.

How to Clearly Say No Without Feeling Like a Jerk

The power of pleasant repetition

Do you ever wonder how you can say “no” without feeling like a jerk, or being so unclear that they don’t hear your “no” as a “no”? Starting with something positive, and then repeating your assertive statement, is often the perfect way to get your message through.

I have an acquaintance who wants me to support her business of selling clothes out of her home. While the clothes are nice, they are also those expensive kind of boutique-y clothes, and the customer service is terrible. I once waited over a month for a pair of grey slacks on backorder, only to be told that my new digs wouldn’t be coming at all. When an order does finally come in, she knocks on my door, tosses the polka dot blouse on the stoop, and dashes back to her Lexus—even if I’m home.

The next time she asks me to check out her new collection, I have several choices. I can say “sure” and cover my eyes while she has her way with my credit card; I can avoid her calls and feel awkward when we run in to each other; I can tell her that her customer service is rotten and that if she treated real customers the way she treats her neighbors and friends she would be out of business. Or, I can create a positive but clear message that I can repeat until it gets through. The conversation might go something like this:

Her: “The new spring collection is here and you just have to check it out!”

Me: “Oh, thanks for letting me know. I’m going to take a pass this time. My closets are packed and I don’t need any more clothes right now.”

Her: “Well, you have to at least check it out. There’s this pencil skirt in an amazing blue that would just look fabulous on you!”

Me: “Thank you, that is so nice of you to say. I’m just overloaded at the moment, and I’m going to have to pass this time.”

Her: “Oh, come on, a girl never has enough of the good stuff.”

Me: “I wish I could say the same. But I’m going to take a pass this time. Thank you for inviting me.”

Notice that she doesn’t have a lot to fight against here. I’m being pleasant, but I’m also repeating my clear no.

Some people refer to this as the broken-record technique. If you’re old enough, you remember your dad playing his records over and over. In my house it was Bob Dylan. Invariably, the record would get a scratch, and your favorite song would be interrupted with the endless repeating of, “Like a rollin’ sto—like a rollin’ sto—like a rollin’ sto—“ until dad finally gave in and moved the needle forward.

This communication technique takes advantage of the power of repetition. If they keep coming at you, you can keep repeating your positive and nice, but clear and firm message. In my case, when she calls again next quarter for the new season of must-have outfits, I can repeat the same message again. If she’s curious, and if she cares, she may eventually ask me if there is anything else behind my “no,” anything about the clothing line I don’t like, and at that point I can give her more feedback, since she’s requested it, if I wish. I’m also under no obligation to do so. My only obligation is to be clear and positive in my "no" to others.

So when you need to, be a broken record. You don’t need to get louder, and you don’t need to get meaner. Just repeat your positive, clear, message one more time.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of the newly released, COMMIT TO WIN: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals (Hudson Street Press), available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Connect on TwitterFacebook, and at www.heidireeder.com.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at Boise State University.


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