Whether it’s a “yeah, I’d love to do a little pro-bono graphic design work for your partner’s new line of sexual candles,” a “totally, let’s grab drinks on a weeknight before my big monthly meeting at the worst bar in the world,” or even a “don’t worry, I can definitely come early to help set up your housewarming party that I know you invited my Big Ex to,” we’ve all papered over our real feelings in order to say yes to a request. It doesn’t feel good to turn someone down, exactly. It’s not something most people relish, per se. But it feels a hell of a lot better than squeaking out an affirmative that you don’t really mean.
According to social psychologist Susan Newman, author of The Book of NO: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It—and Stop People Pleasing Forever, quarantine provided some temporary relief for the yes-men among us when it came to turning down plans. “Now that we’ve lived through this lockdown, people are way more accepting of a ‘no’ than they were pre-pandemic. You can go, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing that,’” Newman told VICE. “Which is a good answer! But I don’t know how long everybody’s going to be able to use it.”
Honesty might be the “best” policy, but it definitely isn’t the easiest. Newman said that there are a few different reasons we might not be open with people about whether or not we’d actually love to let them borrow our car—but that all of them stem from a desire to please people and avoid conflict. She warned that this kind of avoidant behavior comes with a personal cost. “It becomes taxing and overwhelming if you start agreeing to more than you can, physically or emotionally do, because we all have a limited amount of physical time and energy,” she said. Who among us hasn’t dragged themselves through a task they dreaded or (worse) flaked at the last second and created a lose-lose situation for everyone involved?
With history’s most convenient excuse quickly evaporating, it’s worth unpacking why we say yes when we don’t actually mean it—and what we can do to change someone else’s requests from an excruciating burden into a regular part of life.
You’re in the habit of saying “yes!” automatically
Don’t worry: it’s totally normal to have a knee jerk affirmative reaction when someone asks you for something. In fact, the more often you say yes, the more likely you are to find yourself in the same situation in the future thanks to the power of habit. If you frequently find yourself on the hook for requests you can’t (or just don’t want to!) deliver on, you’re going to have to actively work on changing your behavior.
“Saying no is a learned skill,” Newman said. “Instead of what people typically do, which is say ‘yes, no problem, I'll do that for you!,’ think ‘no’ before you say yes and always remember you have a choice.”
Another tactic Newman suggests is to straight-up stall—don’t ignore anyone’s texts (that’s just rude), but do give a non-answer in the moment so you have more time to evaluate and get them a firm answer later. “There's a bunch of things you can say,” she said. “Try ‘I have to think about that, let me get back to you’ or ‘I’m not sure what my plans are that day, weekend, week, month,’ whatever it is. Stalling that way gives you an opportunity to rethink what you might be committing to, and you may end up actually saying no, once you've taken the time to analyze the situation.”
You think your “no” will torpedo your relationship with the asker
Overestimating how consequential your “no” will be is, frankly, a recipe for disaster—a disaster that’s completely of your own making. “We expend a lot of emotional energy worrying and fretting,” Newman said. “People don’t want to risk the relationship, whether it’s with a partner, a boss, a friend, or even with their own children. They don't want to be thrown out of a group or lose their job. The reality is, in most instances, when you refuse somebody, they're not thinking about you or worrying about you. They've moved on to find somebody who will say yes to them.”
While, sure, this might mean they’re less likely to ask you things in the future, that might not be such a bad thing. If you have other people-pleasing tendencies, like putting others’ needs before your own, frequently apologizing, or faking your opinions to match those of the people around you, it’s also worth taking some time to think about who is asking you for what, and how far your relationship extends beyond them just… asking you for things. “When you're weighing a request, you may want to say to yourself, do I need this person's approval? How important is that?” Newman said. “Then there's the whole issue of who is always asking you to do something for them and where's the balance? Is this a balanced relationship?”
Spend time thinking about how you need to spend your time
If you feel overwhelmed by a barrage of asks, press pause on all your non-you obligations to check in with yourself. Taking the time to consider what you need to feel happy, healthy, and available for other people is critical. “Start paying attention to how you use your own time,” Newman said. “Are you always available for everybody else? Figure out who’s eating up all your time so you can decide where to reserve time for yourself.”
Setting aside time to work out, cook a nice dinner for one, crack into that book you’ve been meaning to start, or even watch some deliciously mindless reality TV won’t just make you feel better—it might give you clarity on what kind of asks you have the capacity to take on and what you need to say no to.
Ask for more information, then dial down the commitment
Once you’ve shifted out of the knee-jerk “yeah, totally!” phase, greet requests with a question instead. If it’s a social event and you’re feeling queasy about someone in your friend circle, ask who’s going to be there. If it’s a little extra project at work, like mentoring an intern, ask your boss what their expectations are in terms of time commitment. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to gauge whether saying yes is actually viable.
More details can also make it easier to compromise on a commitment, turning what feels like a huge ask into something much more manageable. “Limit the time you invest,” Newman said. “Say you’re thinking, I don’t want to spend the weekend at my friend’s garage sale. You can say, ‘I can only sit with you in your driveway for an hour on Saturday, I can’t help you set it up on Friday, and I can’t be there on Sunday.’”
Remember that your “no” probably means more to you than to the person you’re turning down
Let this be your North Star in all interpersonal interactions: Nobody is thinking about you and your rich inner life as much as you are. Sure, someone might be a little offended if you turn them down, especially if that’s a frequent pattern when it comes to your relationship. But odds are pretty good they’re just looking to get a need met, which means they’re focused on finding someone else who can help them out —someone to vent to, someone with a car, someone with HTML experience, whoever!—and their world isn’t actually shattered by your specific “Sorry, I actually can’t, but thank you for asking!”
While your unavailability is unlikely to be that big of a deal for the other person, it can certainly go a long way for you. “If you can gear up, say no, it puts an end to whatever they're asking and you can move on and actually feel proud of yourself,” Newman said. You can think OK, there was no negative fallout and I feel really good about it.”
If you’re truly worried that you’re constantly “No, sorry”-ing a friend or someone else in a way that’s hurtful, you can always offer an alternative plan, like one of the dialed down commitments above, in concrete terms that you know work for you. Try something like: “Ah, I actually can’t make it to your birthday party, I’m catching an early flight the next morning and planes make me so anxious. Can I buy you a drink to make up for it when I’m back in town on the 12th?” One of the easiest ways to show someone you care is to make them a priority in your whirlwind of a life. If they really want to be around you, they won’t give a shit if you’re the one dictating the terms.
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