Do you know what’s said to be the most typed or written word in the English language? The question (and this sentence) hint at the answer. The answer is “the.” “No” is in 77th place; “yes” isn’t on the list. Where are yes and no on your own list?
In 2008, Jim Carrey starred in “Yes Man.” The film’s screenplay was adapted from a book written by humorist Danny Wallace, who describes how he spent six months of his life saying yes in order to make his life more interesting and positive. I haven’t read the book, but I did work on the movie in my old job. I can tell you the protagonist, Carl, takes some pretty zany turns as he says yes to everything.
Many people are far more accustomed to saying yes than they are to saying no. How often is yes an acquiescence made out of expectation, obligation, fear, apathy, feelings of powerlessness, guilt? Are we answering yes to impress someone, to go above and beyond, to be indispensable? Are we saying yes because we truly want to make our lives more interesting and positive? How often are we saying yes because we want our lives to be more meaningful?
A lot of people are awful at saying no. (I hear you nodding. True that.) We are better at just going with the flow, cooperating with the request, putting up with whatever it is, because we just don’t want to say no. We seem to equate “no” with conflict or rejection.
Others take it another direction, like always saying no or never asking for anything or avoiding being put in situations where they might be asked something.
Me? I’m a chronic workaholic, a people pleaser, and a perfectionist. Yeesh. It’s like my software was designed to default to yes, to be the first to respond, to overachieve. I’ve been learning for years how to say no, and I’m sure I’ll keep on learning it.
Here’s the thing I’m learning now: Yes and No aren’t enemies at all; they’re two sides of the same coin. All it takes is a little re-framing.
So, if you’re a chronic yes person who really wants to say no sometimes and get out of the yes habit, give these steps a shot.
First, when you are presented with whatever request, by text, phone call, e-mail, or in person, don’t immediately reply, unless it’s only to say, I’ll think about it and get back to you when I decide.
Second, whether your immediate instinct is to say yes or no, ask yourself why. Why do I want to say yes? Why do I want to say no? If you find your yes is for a positive, beneficial reason, sure, let your yes be yes. But if you find you really want to say no, move on to the next step.
Third, re-frame the situation. You’ve got some idea why you want to say no. Now frame that reason as a question that you are saying yes to. For example, I get an e-mail asking me if I want to take some overtime. I’m feeling burned out already, so even though chronic overachiever me wants to say yes, the side of me that needs rest wants to say no. So, then I ask myself, do you want to rest and have some time to spend away from work? Yes. When I find the question that I can say yes to for healthy reasons, it becomes easier to say no to the thing I don’t really want to do anyway.
Finally, be direct. Let your no be no. Don’t make excuses or justify your no externally, because then you’re not far from rationalizing and relenting to yes. A polite no, thank you is fine. “No, thank you, though I do appreciate the offer.” “I apologize, I can’t help with that.” “Thank you for asking. I must decline.” “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with that.” Don’t leave the door open with exceptions like “at this time” or “right now” unless you truly want to say yes at a later date.
Let me sum up: Pause, inventory, re-frame, reply.
Bonus: Start out with some easy no answers. Unsubscribe from a few mailing lists that you’ve been meaning to take care of for ages. Add your phone number(s) to the Do Not Call Registry if you haven’t already. Cancel that subscription for the magazine you never read. Hide that person you’ve been meaning to hide from your News Feed finally.
Double Bonus (Because you can’t have too many): Ask yourself what are some easy nos or yeses for you? Which do you need more of in your life? How do you help yourself say no/yes? What’s the best no you’ve ever heard?
Super Rainbow Bonus (Yeah, I went there): Check out Jia Jiang’s “100 Days of Rejection Therapy.“