No Is Not A 4-Letter Word

By March 23, 2014 Life No Comments

Business Woman Looking On Option And Select No Decision Isolated

I love when I find articles that speak to me and to my clients.  This is from the Wall Street Journal, dated 3/11/14.  So many times we get caught up in being a “people pleaser”.  We think we CAN’T say no.  The secret is…you can…and here is how:

Lesley Ronson Brown knew the woman on the phone asking her to serve on the board of a nonprofit was making a good point, detailing how the group would benefit from her leadership skills. Ms. Brown politely explained that she was busy with other volunteer activities and wanted to spend more time with her family.

The woman kept pleading. So Ms. Brown did the only thing she could think to do: She climbed up on the chair in her office—to feel bigger and more powerful, she says—and “practically growled” her answer. “I was trying to say ‘no’ in a lower-octave, tall brunette voice,” says Ms. Brown, who is petite (and was blonde at the time).

One tiny word can be very hard to say.

When asked to help or to do a favor, whether it is to donate money to charity, fill out a questionnaire or let a stranger use a cellphone, research has shown many people will say “yes” simply because saying “no” would make them even more uncomfortable. This is especially true when people have to give their answer face to face, rather than by email.

And even when people do say “no,” they become more likely to say “yes” to subsequent requests. “They feel so guilty about saying ‘no,’ they feel they need to salvage the relationship,” says Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

People will even agree to unethical requests rather than risk the discomfort of saying “no.” In one of four studies earlier this year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dr. Bohns and her team had 25 college students ask 108 strangers to vandalize a library book by writing the word “pickle” in ink on one of the pages. While many of the strangers protested, or asked the students to take responsibility for any repercussions, half of the strangers agreed to deface the book—much more than the average of 29% that the students predicted.

“One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong,” Dr. Bohns says. “Saying “no” feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness.” And we worry that saying “no” will change the way the other person views us, and make him or her feel badly.

Sadly, it often does hurt feelings. “No” is a rejection. Neuroscience has shown our brains have a greater reaction to the negative than to the positive. Negative information produces a bigger and swifter surge of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex than does positive information. Negative memories are stronger than positive ones. All of this is to protect us: A strong memory of something hurtful helps us remember to avoid it in the future.

Even so, psychologists say, most people probably won’t take our “no” as badly as we think they will. That’s because of something called a “harshness bias”—our tendency to believe others will judge us more severely than they actually do. “Chances are the consequences of saying “no” are much worse in our heads than they would ever be in reality,” Dr. Bohns says.

Of course, not everyone has trouble saying “no.” Some folks seem to do it reflexively. Psychologists believe certain individuals have a harder time than others.

“Pleasers” hate to let others down; “doormats” are conflict-averse. And while Dr. Bohns says she hasn’t found gender differences in her research, some experts believe women may have a harder time than men, since they often are the ones conditioned to maintain relationships and worry about other people’s needs.

All these people especially learn to appreciate the importance of saying “no.” “I can only protect my agenda, my priorities, the job I need to get done if I have the ability to say ‘no’ sometimes,” says Judith Sills, a psychologist in Philadelphia. “Otherwise, I am fulfilling everyone else’s agenda.”

Another important reason to say “no,” Dr. Sills says: It keeps us from caving in to peer pressure. (Refuse to write “pickle” in a library book!) “To have your own values, sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to people with whom you don’t agree,” Dr. Sills says.

But what is the best way to decline a request, so that the other person gets the message and it sticks?

Plan ahead. If you know a request is coming, think in advance about your response. Use a gentle tone of voice to say “no.” Blaming external circumstances may help alleviate your guilt and embarrassment at not being able to comply.

If a request takes you by surprise, don’t allow yourself to assent on the spot. Keep a version of “I’ll get back to you” in your back pocket. You need to step back before committing, says the University of Waterloo’s Dr. Bohns. You want to think rationally, distance yourself from feelings of guilt and come up with a polite answer.

If a person refuses to take “no” for an answer, don’t give up. Repeat your polite refusal as often as necessary.

Ms. Brown, of the swivel chair, has become so proficient at saying “no” that her friends now call her “the Queen of Setting Healthy Boundaries.” She credits her experiences dealing with diabetes and breast cancer with helping her learn to take care of herself first. “I feel I should reward myself by spending time doing things I really enjoy versus things I feel I should do,” says Ms. Brown, a 62-year-old yoga and Pilates instructor from Wheaton, Ill. “I’m also OK if something just doesn’t get done.”

Now, when someone asks her to do something, she asks herself one question: “Will this bring me joy?” If the answer is no, then that is her answer. “I am aware that I have only so much energy and time, so I treat them like money and invest them wisely,” Ms. Brown says.

She has developed her own technique for declining a request that someone just keeps lobbing: She repeats her refusal—”I am sorry, I am not able to do that”—in exactly the same words for as long as it takes. “Eventually they will get bored and defeated and stop asking,” she says.

“And for goodness’ sake, don’t add something like, ‘Well, maybe next year,’ to soften the blow,” Ms. Brown warns. “The person on the other end of the phone has just thought, ‘Gotcha. For next year.’ ”

—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at

About Amanda Herr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

four × three =