Most of us don’t like saying “no” to the people we love. We fear that saying no will hurt our partner and that they might stop loving us. Alternatively, we fear we might come off as arrogant or selfish in the eyes of the people who love us.
Except for physical boundaries where we are taught to say no, we are taught to avoid the big no-no. But learning to master saying no can really change your life.
Why? Because saying no to someone else often means saying yes to yourself.
The usual reactions to requests
There are three typical responses people have when asked to do something. These have been referred to in the literature as the three "A"s.
- Accommodate (Yes, of course...) This is often saying yes even though you don’t want to. Too much accommodation can lead to problems in commitment management since you may not actually have enough time to fulfill all your accommodated commitments.
- Attack (How dare you ask that of me?) Sometimes you may react with anger, insult, surprise, or disappointment (the holy trinity of blocking). A good offense can help block your partner’s requests and go against their emotional bid.
- Avoid (I’ll think about it…) This is a choice not to answer at all. The price you pay for avoidance is that requests linger and can add heaviness and uneasiness to your relationship. Your partner is waiting for an answer from you, so you might start avoiding that topic or them.
So how can you say no and still maintain close relationships? Try using a "positive no."
The components of a positive no
Ury (2007) recommends using a positive no. The components of the positive no can be summed up as: Yes. No! Yes?
- (Internal) Yes. Yes to your values. Yes to what's important to you. You first clarify for yourself and then for the other where their request meets you.
- (Positive) No! Your no comes from a deep sense of respect for yourself and the other. You hold on to yourself and announce what your boundaries are.
- (External) Yes? After refusing the request, you try to further the relationship by finding a win-win or compromise that will go toward your partner's emotional bid and deepen the relationship.
The benefits of a positive no
Saying no can offer several advantages:
Respect from others. People actually respect us more when we communicate a positive no, whether it’s our partner, colleagues, or children.
Respect for yourself. When you say no, your unconscious mind realizes that you are taking care of yourself and rewards you with a more solid sense of self.
- Authenticity, assertion, and confidence. Saying no asserts your subjectivity, boundaries, and self-respect. Saying no will increase your sense of vitality and integrity. You learn to voice your true self and preferences.
- Prevents the victim triangle dynamic. Overaccommodation can cast those who ask you as persecutors, leading you to feel like a victim and feel sorry for yourself.
- Aids in designing your life. No helps you prioritize and take action toward your goals.
- Dignity and partnership. You become a person who respects themselves and stands up for their life, thereby becoming a full partner in your relationship.
Obviously, there needs to be a balance between saying yes to yourself/no to others as well as saying yes to others.
How to say no
- Let requests land. When people ask you for something, let their request enter your body and see where it hits you. See how your body reacts to this bid. What value or need of yours is triggered with this request? What is this about for you?
- Say no and prepare yourself for ruptures. Expect disappointment and resistance. Accept the fact that you may not be loved in those moments. Your partner might be angry, cry, or even retaliate by saying nasty things. Realize that the more you voice your unique self and stop adapting to others’ needs, the more feathers will be ruffled.
- Survive. Get used to disappointing others and over time you will be able to stay open, present, and grounded in the face of their reaction.
- Dare to counteroffer. Once you’re differentiated enough, you will be able to counteroffer a bid that will serve to draw you closer to your partner.
- Stay open. Keep the door open for the other person to calm down, get over their disappointment, and come close again.
Learning to say yes to yourself, even if it means saying no to others, is not easy. Learning to say yes within every no is equally hard. Yet by insisting on the positive no, you are not only solidifying your own sense of self, but you are also increasing the honesty, authenticity, and connection in your relationship.
Brothers, C. (2005). Language and the pursuit of happiness: A new foundation for designing your life, your relationships & your results. Naples, FL: New Possibilities Press.
Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. Penguin.
Ury, W. (2007). The power of a positive no: How to say no and still get to yes. New York, NY: Bantam.