Why does this keep happening!? You knew you didn’t want to go to that event… help out with that thing… didn’t have time to get across town for that meeting! But you said you would go…do it… be there anyway.
Why do we say ‘Yes’ when we really need to say ‘No’? More importantly, how can we stop doing it without pissing people off or seeming selfish?
The Difficulty of Setting Limits
I’ve always admired people who can gracefully set limits with others. But for sensitive peeps it can be tough! Setting limits is difficult because whenever we ask for something, or say ‘no’ to another person’s request, it demands that we momentarily tolerate the disappointment and discomfort of the other person.
Imagine you are sitting across from me, and I need a pen that sits on the table between us. If I ask you to pass me the pen, you have two choices: A. You can pass me the pen and earn my approval, or B. You can say ‘no, I am unwilling to pass you the pen,’ thus having to tolerate my disappointment.
Saying ‘no’ is difficult because saying ‘yes’ is rewarded (e.g. a smile, a ‘thank you”), but saying ‘no’ is punished (e.g. a frown, a “oh really? C’mon!”)
Healthy Boundaries: Balancing the comfort of both parties over time
You may think, “I don’t want to make waves.” Or “It’s just easier if I do it myself.” But this way of deflecting short-term discomfort can lead to longer-term problems in the relationship.
Being effective means getting your needs met, while maintaining the relationship with the other person. Too often, we err towards one side or the other. When we choose our needs (and comfort), it can burden the strength of the relationship. When we choose the relationship (other person’s comfort, we can get caught in, what I call ‘Over-Offerer’ syndrome, which can lead to resentment.
How to decide if you are Over-Offering
Sometimes its hard to decide whose comfort we should chose; if we should push for what we want, or just go with the flow. The decision should be made based on the totality and strength of the relationship. By adding the components below, you can more clearly define which way to lean.
| Ask – Say ‘No’
||Don’t Ask- Don’t Say ‘No’|
|You have more authority in the relationship.||You have less power or authority in the relationship|
|You are generally a giver in the relationship and tend to do things for yourself||You have asked a lot, or said ‘no’ quite often in the relationship|
|The relationship is strong and loving||The relationship is tenuous|
|The timing is good (person is not stressed at the time)||The timing is bad (person is stressed)|
|The outcome is important to your values||The outcome is not so important|
The Skill of Effective Assertiveness
So HOW do we push through the discomfort and increase the likelihood of getting what we want, without creating so much discomfort in the other person as to damage the relationship? Here are the 3 Simple Steps to Effective Assertiveness that I teach all of my clients:
The VAR Skill
Step I. Validate the other person’s side of things
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Consider and acknowledge the discomfort you will be imposing on the other person. Validation (acknowledging, honoring) is the lubricant for getting the outcome you desire.
People are more willing to do things they feel are acknowledged as difficult, rather than expected, and the difficulty minimized.
HOW: As much as possible, start with a validation statement: “It’s such a bummer I can’t be there,” or “I know you are super busy, so I hate to bother you…” or “I can understand where you are coming from on this.” Or just a simple, “I hear you.”
Step 2. Assert: Ask or say ‘no’ clearly, directly, and behaviorally
State your request, or your decline, specifically, and behaviorally. This can be the hardest part because we feel awkward and anxious about imposing or disappointing.
But clear communication is good for everyone. People feel good when they can check the box and say to themselves, “Done!” Asking specifically and behaviorally reduces the discomfort of uncertainty for the other person, and increases the likelihood that the individual will agree to your request.
HOW: Figure out the specific actions you need from the other person, which would give you what you want. If saying ‘no,’ don’t just describe how you feel about doing it, actually say “no.”
Step 3. Reinforce: Tell them what’s in it for them!
Reinforce the behavior or the understanding you desire. The idea is to make them feel good for giving you what you want. Tell them what’s in it for them!
HOW: This might be a simple negotiation offer, for example, “If you do this for me, I will do this for you.” Or, if the relationship is a strong one, simply telling the person how much it would help you for them to do this for you. When saying ‘no,’ a simple “thanks so much for understanding,” goes a long way.
Practice with Small Stuff First
As with any skill, it will not necessarily be easy to master mindful assertiveness at first. Start by just noticing when you are over-offering. Then practice with small requests and refusals before going for something big, like a raise or a promotion!
Like shooting hoops in basketball, there are no guarantees that you will succeed every time. But being skillful will definitely improve your odds!
If you would like to learn more self-help skills to build your resilience and self-mastery, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery Skills Weekly here. Or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
*This skill is adapted from the Marsha Linehan DBT skill Interpersonal Effectiveness