Yeah, but no….The Art of the Positive Refusal

If you’re a people-pleaser like me, you’ll be familiar with getting yourself into a pickle because you’ve said yes to too many things. The Art of Saying No has remained elusive to me for much of my life, and I have often found myself in situations I would really rather not be in, feeling overstretched or even feeling resentful for not being cut a good deal (when really I only have myself to blame for not speaking out). Sound familiar? The good news is that there is a way to say no without it feeling like you’re saying ‘no’, and it’s something I now use as a matter of course.

It is human nature to cooperate. Research conducted at Harvard University found that when making quick decisions people were more likely to cooperate with others, while more self-centred decisions came after longer deliberation. What this tells us is that we instinctively work with others, and that’s because our brains have learned that it’s normally within our interests to do so.  Saying ‘yes’ is a sure-fire way to demonstrate our willing to work with others and cooperate. But it’s not always within our interests if it means taking on too much work or being dealt a raw deal because someone else had the balls to say no.

So here’s a way you can say no very clearly, but still also demonstrate you’re cooperating. It’s called the positive refusal, and it works in 4 easy steps:

Step one: say thank you

Opening your refusal with “thank you for asking me” is a quick and certain way to get the other person on side. You’re acknowledging that their request is worth something to you, and making them feel appreciated. This is flattering and has a very different impact from opening with “oooh, I’m really sorry but…” which immediately puts them on the back foot. You could even add in something here that demonstrates your interest or knowledge about what they are asking you, such as “I’ve heard a lot about that project” or “it sounds like a great opportunity”. Everyone’s still friends. Our cooperation is still intact.

Step two: tell them what else you’re committed to

Here, you’re sharing with them what you have already said yes to (metaphorically, of course) and what’s important about prioritizing that right now. If there’s something that resonates with them, even better. So for example, this might be something like: “I’m currently working on finalizing the strategy for new starters so that we can all save ourselves some time when the new grad intake starts in June. I’m going to share it with everyone next week, but until then it’s taking up all of my time.” What’s important here is that you demonstrate your enthusiasm for what you’re doing and highlight it as something positive, rather than launch into a rant about how busy you are and how put-upon you feel, because that’s going to make the other person feel bad for asking you, and that is not the aim here. Cooperation gauge? Still in the black.

Step three: say no

Now that you have expressed clearly your appreciation for having been asked and your positive reasons for needing to prioritise something else, you can say no clearly and unequivocally without it needing to upset or offend the other person. You don’t need to torturously beat around the bush here, you’ve made enough ground to just say “so that means I can’t do that for you. I’m sorry.” Nuff said. And everybody’s still ok.

Step four: make an offer

This does NOT mean tacking on the end a little “but I can maybe see if I can find some time this evening if you like?” (I’ve got your number, you over-active people-pleasers!) It means ending with something that shows willing to help them in achieving what they need, even if that is no more than warm wishes and encouragement. If there is something you can do, like suggest an approach or another person they can talk to, then great, but otherwise then acknowledging the task they have and wishing them success with it will have the same effect: “Perhaps it’s worth speaking to Penny as she knows a lot about x” or “I know it’s a big project and you’re the best person for it so I’m sure it’ll be a great success.” It shows support, and that is another form of cooperation. You may well find that they then end up by thanking you for your help/ support/ honesty! It’s win-win!

I must be clear that this is not a way to make it sound like you’re saying yes when actually you mean no; that way, the other person comes away thinking you’ve agreed to something you haven’t, or just plain confused. This is a clear and definitive way of saying no, while not making you feel back for not cooperating or the other person feel rejected. Let’s be honest, it will probably be clear from the off that your answer is no, but it’s about managing the impact of that ‘no’ both for you and the person who’s receiving it. It’s a model that takes care of everyone, and helps to maintain positive relationships. Even better, this could help to improve relationships as it demonstrates honesty and respect towards everyone, including yourself, and everyone responds well to that.

Give it a go. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer!

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