Business coach Ann Mehl says assertiveness is an essential but often unnatural skill for entrepreneurs.
One of my clients recently confessed to me that he told a distant cousin who was visiting from out of town, that he had plans to be in Alaska while she was around. A little “white lie” in order to avoid the obligatory “Hey, we should get together and have dinner.” Instead of just coming clean and sharing the simple truth (that he was busy and didn’t feel like meeting up), he created this rather elaborately drawn fiction, worthy of a Seinfeld episode.
If you have trouble saying “no”, you’re certainly not alone. Last week, I had to say “no” to serving on yet another committee, and it was difficult for me to do because it’s a cause that I firmly believe in. But the sense of personal liberation I felt afterwards told me it was the right decision for me. In the past, I might have said yes for fear of hurting people’s feelings, or being seen as disagreeable. I was raised, like a lot of girls, to be a people pleaser. So learning to say “no” has been a challenge for me, a learned skill.
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A few years ago I enlisted in an assertiveness training program to sharpen my own skills in this area. Knowing how and when to communicate our thoughts and needs was the focus of the class. I learned that my dislike of saying “no” was deeply embedded in my psyche. But it was also costing me dearly in my work and in my relationships. It was particularly frustrating since I realized I was doing this to myself. With a little practice and some good instruction, I soon learned that saying “no” doesn’t have to mean being rude or disagreeable.
Saying “No” Respectfully
Now, if I want to say “no” to someone who asks me for something, I make a point of saying (if it’s true, of course) how much I WANT to support them and why it doesn’t work for me. E.G:
“Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I can’t commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment…”
“No, I’m not available. Is there something we can do so that we can meet halfway?”
“No, I don’t have the capacity. I have a long-standing appointment for this evening that I need to keep…”
“I’m sorry, but now is not a good time for me as I’m in the middle of something else. Maybe we can reconnect at another time?”
“I am not the best person to help you with this, maybe you should try X…”
“No, I’m not comfortable doing that.”
“No, I’m not interested.”
For people who don’t respect your “no” (and there will be some), my best piece of advice is to simply repeat, calmly and clearly, your stated position (AKA the broken record technique).
“Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m going to have to pass on this. I’d rather say ‘no’ now than ‘I’m sorry’ later.”
Why is assertive communication difficult for so many? For starters, it’s not something that we’re ever taught in school, and we often learn poor communication techniques from those we observed (who also received no formal training). Yet, assertiveness is an essential skill if we are to deal with the world in a mature and responsible fashion. The right to say “no” without feeling guilty was one of the many “personal” rights I learned I had. Others include:
- The right to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”
- The right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- The right to decide what is best for me.
- The right to be listened to and taken seriously.
- The right to change my mind.
- The right to make mistakes.
Openness to hearing “No”
The corollary of this means that we must also be okay when someone says “no” to us. Recently, I had the experience of requesting a meeting with an author whose work I admired. We had met before and I knew he was going to be in town, so I put a request in with his office that we meet for lunch. His response was simple and direct: “I’m slammed right now. New book underway. Bad time. But ask me again.” After feeling peeved for about five seconds, I found I only had more respect for him for so clearly asserting his individual needs.
With so many competing demands for our time and attention, we need to carefully discern who and what we commit to. The question of how to deliver that message – without worrying about what people think, or second guessing ourselves – is a skill that many of us lack. But it can be learned. Saying “No” allows you to say “Yes” to other things.
By clearly stating what we want and honoring that our needs matter, we can begin to get things done and earn the respect of ourselves and others. And the next time your distant cousin comes to town and you don’t feel like meeting up. Just be honest. In the words of Mark Twain: “Tell the truth, it’s easier to remember.”
Read more career advice from Ann Mehl:
Learning to be Resilient
Small Personal Investments for a Big Payoff
How to Communicate Effectively
10 Tips For Unlocking Your Potential