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Buttoned Up: Don't say yes when you really mean no


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American humorist Josh Billings really hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough."

Researchers have demonstrated in different ways that humans are simply hard-wired to reciprocate. It stems from our early ancestors, who learned to share food and skills, and eventually divide up labor and exchange a variety of goods and services. A web of indebtedness served a critical function: it meant that one person could give something to another without the feeling that it had been lost. Without that sense, an individual had no reason to contribute something of value to the group, and no significant advancements would have been possible.

Of course, there are other factors that increase your likelihood of saying yes, such as a lack of clarity around your own goals and objectives, a desire to avoid confrontation, as well as your age. The younger you are, the less likely you are to have grasped the hard-earned wisdom of saying no.

So if saying yes to requests is innate, how do you overcome the tendency without falling prey to the negative side effects of saying no? Well, as we were writing our last book, "Pretty Neat," Alicia and I studied the tactics of the most experienced group of "naysayers." Who were they? They were people over 45 who had learned how to say no with grace only after experiencing the pain of over-commitment. Here are three of the brilliant strategies they employ along with descriptions of how you might use them.

  • Beg for time. Swap your "sure, no problem" for "that sounds really interesting; let me think about it and get back to you with an answer." Then use the time to determine whether you want to accept the request. For party-related requests, instead of a knee-jerk "we'll be there!" try "that sounds like it will be lots of fun! When do you need an RSVP by?" Then in the low-pressure environment of your own home, you can determine whether you really want to attend.
  • Have a few scripts at the ready. Sometimes it's easier to have a canned response than to figure out how to respond appropriately in the moment. Since every situation is different, it makes sense to have a few different scripts at the ready. My personal favorite "no" script for event invitations: "Oh, my heart says yes, but, sadly, my calendar says no."
  • Focus on finding a compromise. Sometimes the best way to deliver a no is to suggest an alternative. Try offering to do something else or suggest an alternative due date that will make both you and the other person happy.
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