I received an email from a female reader of our newsletter stating that she sometimes found it difficult to say NO, and whether I could focus attention on this issue at some point. In my training and coaching sessions, I regularly observe a lot of people struggling with this, so my answer is: ‘Yes of course!’ Because learning to say NO – and it’s definitely something you can learn – may be difficult, but it’s also a life skill.
Why do you sometimes find it difficult to say NO to your partner, your friends, your manager, to sweets, television, relaxation, working overtime, etc? There could be a whole variety of reasons. A couple I meet regularly told me: “It’s impolite, it could damage our careers or friendships, it’s not collegial, it’s being selfish, or it’s just not done.” And I’m sure you can think of quite a few more. Reflect on the arguments you have for not being able to say NO, not wanting to say NO, or not being allowed to say NO.
What these reasons all have in common is that you are the one who has decided to consider them important enough not to say NO to, whatever it is you have been asked. And… by doing so, you have consciously or unconsciously said YES to what has been asked. Becoming aware of this – the choice you make again and again – is the first step in learning to say NO. Saying NO actually means making a choice! Before reading on, take a close look at this short video with someone who is a star in saying NO.
How consciously do you make choices in your life? To what degree do you analyse when and where you say YES or NO? If, for example, you say YES to working overtime every day, are you conscious of the fact that you are actually saying NO to your family, to relaxation and to rest? Or if you say YES to the fear that you will be regarded as not being collegial, that you are actually saying NO to your independence? Try looking at it from the opposite viewpoint. After all, by saying YES to your integrity and self-confidence for example, you’re saying NO to your fear of losing your job and NO to powerlessness. Or by saying YES to personal development, you’re saying NO to the status quo and, for example, to doing the same work for the rest of your life.
So learning to say NO starts with consistently asking yourself what you’re saying YES and NO to every time you make a choice. As soon as you become aware of this, so-called blind spots or habits will become more evident and you will be able to create the energy you need to dare to make a choice. This way, you are getting a step closer to the actual NO.
After you have visualised every YES and NO and you’ve made a choice, then comes the difficult part: having the guts to actually say your NO out loud. You can apply all kinds of theories to it, but… it’s all about taking action. Consider the act of saying NO as a muscle that has to be strengthened. That won’t happen just by talking, but by getting into action and practising, even though you find it scary and you’ve got all kinds of worst case scenarios in your head about what might just happen if you say NO. In my experience, the effects of the fear of the consequences are often worse than the reality. People regularly tell me that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be; the manager or partner actually understood my point of view. The question that consistently comes to the fore is whether you want to be driven by the fear of what might happen, or whether you want to be driven by the feeling of power and space that you gain by saying NO? Or as Dutch singer and comedienne Karin Bloemen expresses it: ‘I’d rather be the agent of my future than the victim of my past.’
And then to my challenge for this time: in the next three weeks, I want you to say NO at least 5 times a day! That doesn’t have to immediately be about ‘earth shattering’ events. Just start small. If someone asks you to get some coffee for them, to bring back something from the shops for them, or if they ask you in the shop for some small change. Become curious about how you are feeling at the moment of saying NO and observe what happens around you. And just to remind you (and to give you that extra bit of motivation): it’s not about the result, but about strengthening that muscle. And you’ll only achieve that by actually practising.
Take pleasure in saying NO!