Most of us grew up having to explain our behaviors.
What were you thinking?
Why did you do that?
What's your excuse, this time?
Parents, teachers, and cranky neighbors claimed the power position and demanded explanations. They towered over us, and we gave them what they wanted - sometimes the truth and other times a lie.
As we all know, old habits die hard. Many adults still assume that explanations are expected and engage in knee-jerk justifications. When we offer excuses or invent lies, we assume a one-down position and feel diminished.
Powerful Coworker: Seriously? You are not ready for the presentation?
One-down Coworker: Oh, I was working on it. But, well, (sniff, sniff) we had a death in the family.
Self-confident Coworker: I will be ready at 1pm.
Powerful Spouse: You're late again.
One-down Spouse: Well, I can't exactly tell my boss that I have to get home for dinner when she wants me to work late.
Self-confident Spouse: Is there something I can do to help get dinner on the table?
Timing is everything
Not justifying your decision to work late does not preclude offering interesting details. Timing is everything. If you lead with justifications, your position is weakened because you accept the other person's take on the situation and allow yourself to be put on the defensive. If, while you're making salad dressing, you wish to tell the story of the boss coming into your office at 4:59 with a problem that only you could solve, feel free. Choosing not to justify does not mean withholding information from near-and-dear ones. It does mean reacting as an equal rather than as a child who is in big trouble.
Powerful Friend: You're coming to my jewelry party, right?
One-down Friend (who hates home jewelry parties): Uh, well, I think so...but I'm not sure. I may have to give the dog a bath.
Self-confident Friend: Oh, you know that's not my kind of thing. I'd love to get together with you for coffee, though.
Practicing self-confident responses
Choosing not to justify legitimate preferences and decisions has an equalizing effect. When one assumes equality, the stage is set for adult-adult interaction. All it takes is practice.
It is always an option to stop agreeing to things you don't want to do, humoring bores, letting people call you on the carpet, etc, etc. Even if someone casts you as the inferior, your behavior defines your role. Assume equality!
Powerful Coworker (who is a bore): You can join us for lunch, if you want.
One-down Coworker (who prefers to eat alone at her desk): Oh, gosh. I'm feeling kind of sick today and wouldn't want to expose anybody.
Self-confident Coworker (who prefers to eat alone at her desk and does not justify her preference): Oh, thanks for asking but not today.
Powerful Spouse: There's no way I'm going to skip the tractor-pull and go to that stupid ballet.
One-down Spouse: Oh, come on! We never go to the ballet. You never do what I want to do.
Self-confident Spouse (who does not justify her decision): I know it's not your kind of thing. I'll invite my sister to go with me.
If the person with whom you are interacting attempts to escalate into an adolescent shouting match, you can easily take the one-up position. By maintaining your equal-adults stance, it becomes clear that the one who is destructively venting negative emotions has taken the role of a child. See previous post: Four Keys to Constructively Not Giving In.
Saying no, letting it stand
If one is in the habit of justifying preferences and decisions - especially when saying no - not justifying can feel uncomfortable. We worry about how we're coming across, about how the other person is taking it, and about how we can insure that the other person still likes us. The only way to feel less uncomfortable (more confident) is to keep practicing.
As we practice interacting as equals, we unlearn habits formed during childhood and begin to experience situations differently. Saying no feels less uncomfortable. Stating preferences and decisions without offering justifications feels more natural. Also, we see that we come across as confident, that others recognize us as equals, and that we do not damage relationships by claiming this freedom.