They call them “the terrible twos” for a reason. Tell a two-year-old to put away his toys because it’s time for a bath and you’ll likely be subjected to a screaming “No.”
Let’s assume that the toddler’s parents reprimanded him for his outbursts, then sent him off to his bedroom. But his behavior continued at school, where his classmates thought he was selfish and self-centered. They did not invite him to play, and scornfully rolled their eyes when they were forced to include him.
Eventually, Chris learned that by saying “Yes,” he was welcomed to participate. The more he said “Yes,” the more people viewed him as kind and helpful.
Soon, they appreciated having him around, and shared with him the things they most valued. He’d learned that being agreeable opened many doors of opportunity. Very often, people who are too quick to say “No” are judged to be demanding, selfish, and confrontational.
Now imagine that same child as a twentysomething working in an office. “Hey, Chris,” the boss says, “can you help me go through these résumés? We need to get the interviews going.”
“Sure, boss,” Chris says, “I’ve got my presentation first thing in the morning, but I can finish it at home tonight.” Very likely, Chris will not just say “Yes” to the boss but also to anyone in the office who asks for help.
Diana Kander says that “we live in a culture of ‘Yes’… Likability has become a key determinant in landing jobs and other professional opportunities.” However, maybe we’ve learned the lesson to not say “No” a little too well, according to Dr. Harriet Braiker:
People-pleasers are not just nice people who go overboard trying to make everyone happy. Those who suffer from the Disease to Please are people who say “Yes” when they really want to say “No.”
For them, the uncontrollable need for the elusive approval of others is an addiction. Their debilitating fears of anger and confrontation force them to use “niceness” and “people-pleasing” as self-defense camouflage.
It’s OK to Say No
When you’re considering a request for help, consider your priorities and deadlines. If you need a little time, ask for a day to evaluate, but only a day. Even if you find that you have some time, ask yourself if this is something that you would enjoy doing.
It’s OK to say “No.” Do it with grace and authority. Here is some simple advice from The Muse on how to say it.
First, appreciate that the person values your help and sought you out. If it’s something you wish you had the time for, say so.
Second, use the old “It’s not you, it’s me” line. Validate the appropriateness of the request, but say with regret that you are unable to participate.
Third, tell it like it is. Offer an explanation of what’s preventing you from helping, but keep it brief.
Last, as you consider the help requested, you can offset any ill feelings by offering a piece of advice that might keep them from learning a lesson the hard way, or by suggesting someone else who might benefit from helping.
Confronting the Boss
But, what if the request comes from the boss and you just really can’t afford the time? Recommend that the two of you review your priorities. See what can be tossed aside to allow you to help on the new project.
While the focus here is to encourage you to be more willing to say “No,” saying “Yes” is, of course, a beautiful thing. Just be careful. You might (barely) have time to help with another project, but will you lose focus on your own work?
Craig Cincotta warns that, “[In saying ‘Yes’] you begin to create ripples of productivity [in your own work] when you should be making waves [emphasis added].”
Take Pride in What You Don’t Do
If you need more help justifying saying “No,” consider Steve Jobs’s advice:
People think focus means saying “Yes” to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying “No” to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You must pick carefully. I’m as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.
Here’s one last thought about these “yes or no” situations. Recognize that we are judged by the yes/no decisions that we make. If someone asks for your help to do something that you find morally objectionable, do not sacrifice your principles.
Again, with grace and authority, explain your thinking. Who knows, maybe you’ll get some people to rethink their actions and say “No” to themselves.