(c) monkeybusiness www.fotosearch.com
Source: (c) monkeybusiness www.fotosearch.com

When you want to say no to a request, do you feel reluctant to answer honestly? You may fear that a no would disappoint or antagonize the person who asked you, and no one wants relationship problems.  Especially on important issues, saying yes to requests when you want to say no puts you at risk for negative feelings:

  • resentment, which is a form of anger
  • stress, a form of anxiety
  • depression, a consequence of having submitted instead of standing your ground with regard to what you really wanted 
  • passive-aggression, that is, getting back at someone by not-doing, or half-way doing, what you said you'd do

“Could you help me deliver these boxes of yard sale items to the church this morning?” John’s mother asked him. 

John’s heart sunk. He had planned to use the morning for an autumn leaves clean-up in his yard. At the same time, he hated to disappoint his mother. “Sure mom," he answered.  "How about if I come by at about 11:00?”

John did help his mother deliver the large boxes to their church.  He loaded his car, drove to the church, and lugged the multiple boxes up several sets of stairs.  He then dragged the boxes to several different offices before he finally found Edna, the administrator in charge of receiving donations for their big community yard sale event.

“Oh no! We don’t need those now,” Edna said when she saw John dragging the heavy boxes into her office.  “We finished by 10:00 this morning.”

John felt his anger rising.  “I’m so glad I went to all this trouble to bring these in," he responded sarcastically.

The administrator’s blunt no had been needlessly harsh. 

John’s mother then arrived.  “I’m so happy my son was able to help me bring these boxes to you!” she gushed, still a bit breathless from climbing the stairs.

Edna, realizing her mistake the first go-round, did better this time.  “I see you’ve been so generous! While we’ve already set up for most of what we'll be selling, we’re always happy to have more.  And thank you so much John for carrying all your Mom’s delivery to us.  Getting those up the stairs must have been a challenge.” 

The appreciation from his mom and from Edna eased John's annoyance. Seeing his mother's joy at her having been able to make this contribution to the church calmed virtually all of his negative feelings.  Maybe that's one reason why he had said yes instead of no.  John loved his mom and took great pleasure in being able to bring delight to her.  In this case, the reward proved worth the effort.

In many cases though, no amount of reward can make a request worth responding to with a yes.  How then can you say no?  Use the sandwhich formula.  Tuck your no in between two yeses, that is, between two positive statements.

Mom: Can you help me bring these boxes to the church this morning?

John: 1) Yes mom, I can see that you will need help with the boxes.  There are a lot of them.  2) At the same time, I have other commitments this morning I need to take care of so I need to say no.  3) Here's an idea.  How about if I check on the web for a listing of people looking for odd jobs.  Someone will be very happy to have this few hours of work. 

In this case John made the second piece of bread in her positivity sandwhich a suggestion for an alternative solution.  In other cases, more agreement, appreciation, or gratitude of some sort are other forms of positivity that can work.

John: Yes mom, I can see you'll need help with the boxes.  I won't be able to help because I've already committed that time elsewhere.  Thanks mom for asking me though.  Most of the time I love being able to help you out.

Why does the positivity sandwich work?

Any sentence with no or not in it will have a downer emotional impact on the listener. Offering a dollop of positivity with a yes at the outset plus another dollop of positivity afterwards leaves the recipient of the no overall feeling good about you and about the relationship with you even if you did give a no to the specific request.  Try it!


Dr. Heitler's writes blogposts, books and a fun interactive website (check it out!) that teach the skills for sustaining positive relationships.

(c) Power of Two, used with permission
Source: (c) Power of Two, used with permission

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