One of the skills I struggled with the most, and still need almost daily reminders now, was to learn how to say no. Like many others, I am a people pleaser at heart. I want everyone to love me. It took me a long time to come to realize this is a product of social conditioning. As humans, we’re evolutionarily designed to be part of the pack. During caveman times, the person left out of the group was the one who got eaten. Our brains have come to equate isolation and social death with actual death.
On top of this, society teaches women in particular to care about what other people think. Am I likeable? Did I hurt that person’s feelings? Will my choices inconvenience others? I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking these types of thoughts on an almost daily basis. In light of these considerations, it’s no surprise at all that we struggle to say no. Our brains are protecting us. We don’t want to be that loner, stuck on the fringes of society with no one around us to protect us when the bears come to eat us. As women, we learn that NOT considering other people before ourselves is a straight shot to that fate. As a result, we never learn how to say no.
This is what typically happened to my brain whenever anyone asked me for something that I knew, in my gut, I did not want to do. First, I would feel an inward cringe at the request. In my heart of hearts, I knew I wanted to say no. Second, I would freeze, deer in the headlights style. I could almost see the disappointment or disapproval written on the person’s face at the thought of saying no. Third, my mind would scramble to put together some sort of coherent excuse for why I couldn’t deliver. Anything that would allow me to bow out gracefully without alienating the other person. Lastly, after not being able to think of anything good on the spot (in the midst of my panic), I would simply give in and say yes. And regret it.
In a coming blog post, I’ll talk about why this habit of saying yes to everything is so dangerous. Seemingly little self-betrayals chip away at our self-esteem and our faith in ourselves. I’ll also talk about my fundamental rules for saying no in the moment – how to do it without being a total A-hole.
But if you are where I was at just a while ago, you need to ease into the whole saying no thing, or else it will just turn into an unintended yes. You need to buy yourself some time in that moment of freezing so you can learn how to say no. Simply telling yourself to say no more often probably hasn’t worked so far, and will continue not to work.
So here are the six magic words I use when I’m in the heat of the moment:
Let me get back to you
Why is this phrase so clutch? You don’t need to refuse anyone when doing so feels like jumping off a cliff onto jagged rocks below. Instead, you can buy yourself a little time and save yourself a hasty “yes.” Now, here are a few caveats:
- You need to actually get back to the person with an answer. Otherwise, it’s just rude. More on that in a coming post.
- This phrase will buy you some time to avoid the high-anxiety situation I described above. If you already know how to say no, but are stringing the person along, again, that’s just rude.
- This is a great “interim” move. In other words, when you’re first learning how to say no but can’t quite manage it in the moment, use this as a baby step to get you through. You’ll know you’ve mastered this step and are ready to move on to actually saying no in the moment when saying “let me get back to you” feels like no big deal.
So the next time you’re in a bind and panicked, and someone asks you something, ask for more time to respond. Use those six magic words. You can then use time and distance to politely decline on your own terms.