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Why Learning to Say No is An Act of Kindness Towards Others

Summary: You did it again: said "yes" when you meant "no". You've read the tips for how to say no, but simply feel too guilty at the moment of truth to decline. What if saying "no" is the nicest thing you can do for the other person? Read on to learn more.

Why Learning to Say No is An Act of Kindness Towards Others

“So many of us spend our waking hours getting things done without ever stopping to ask, “Are these the right things to be doing?” – Dr. Kathleen Nadeau

I’ve read a lot of “Learn to say No” guides and articles. These guides offer to teach you to say to requests you really don’t (or shouldn’t) say yes to. 

Some of these guides have great suggestions, but there’s an underlying tone of defensiveness in many of them that’s concerning. It’s as if many are writing from the perspective that saying no is an inherently guilt-ridden and unkind thing to do. They have titles like 49 Ways to Say No to Anyone (When You Don’t Want to Be a Jerk). Or The Ultimate Guide to Saying No with Grace and Compassion. Or Ten Guilt-free Strategies for Saying No.

The Pressure is Real

Woman stressed out in front of laptop.

I understand the impulse to pitch it this way. The pressure to say “yes” all the time is real. Our culture tells us that over commitment is a sign of value. We celebrate those in our culture are who are constantly multitasking and on the go. The message is clear: The busier you are, the more worthy you are of attention and respect, and the more successful you will be.

Saying yes all the time is part of this equation. Learning to say no is counterculture and therefore difficult. Even when we’re already overextended or when saying yes would run counter to our values or priorities. 

Saying no is counterculture and therefore difficult.

But if saying no is unkind, then it sets up an adversarial relationship between the person asking and the person being asked. In this dynamic, their goal is to get a yes out of you, and your goal is to avoid committing. This perspective also ignores the fact that our greatest priority should be how we’re spending our time, not how busy we are. It also ignores the fact that learning how to set boundaries is foundational to healthy relationships.

Friends having coffee

We now tend to approach requests for our time and energy with dread. When asked, our knee-jerk reaction is to figure out how to say no without seeming selfish or irritating the boss. 

I think we need to have more meaningful conversations regarding how we evaluate potential commitments. That’s the only way to make sure that our to-do list aligns with our priorities. A cultural conversation about living with intention will also help us recognize our commonalities. For example, we all want to feel less overwhelmed by life, and live with greater purpose and happiness.  

When “No” Is More Meaningful Than “Yes”

What if figuring out learning how to say no is sometimes the most meaningful way to create a culture driven not by a need to be busy but rather by thoughtful decision-making? 

First, we must remember that behind every “no” is a “yes.” When you choose to say no to one thing, you are saying yes to something else. After all, you are doing something else with your time. Ideally, the thing you are doing instead is something of greater value to you. 

Image of a Checklist with "yes" and "no" written on it

“No” is vitally important because it protects the “yes”

Second, when we’re approached with an ask, we have an important opportunity to thoughtfully measure the value of this commitment against our priorities in life. This is true for both individuals and organizations, so it applies in a work setting and everyday life. Evaluating potential commitments thoughtfully means casting a vote for living with intention.

Third, when you say no to something after asking the right questions, you have taken the opportunity to explore meaningful commonalities and differences between yourself and the person doing the asking. Thoughtful questions help you gain valuable information that you need to make an informed decision. But they while demonstrate respect for the other person by showing real interest. Even if you ultimately say no, you may increase your understanding of the person in the process of gathering information.

Any time we take the opportunity to understand another person’s thoughts and motivations more clearly, we deepen our capacity for understanding which, in turn, leads to greater empathy and compassion. Psychology Today says “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. Empathy facilitates prosocial (helping) behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that we behave in a more compassionate manner.”

The Value of a “Yes”

Fourth, thoughtful questions also help uncover the real value of the opportunity – or lack thereof. How many committees or events continue year to year, not because most people find them valuable, but because no-one is willing to question their value and be the first to say no? “Doing something because we’ve always done it” is a real problem. Asking thoughtful, specific questions can keep you from this trap and help others discover when they’ve fallen into it themselves.

If you’ve taken the time to ask thoughtful questions about the ask, you may arrive at the conclusion that this commitment is not for you. Learning to say no can be tough. To help you say no when you need to and maintain a values-based perspective in the decision-making process, we’re offering a FREE guide, The Beauty of No.

FREE Guide: The Beauty of No

I realize that having an in-depth conversation when someone asks for your time is not always practical. Sometimes, we need to say no, when faced with a particularly aggressive asker. In that case, there are many great tips floating around out there for saying no quickly and graciously. 

But if you take the time to ask important questions about a potential commitment and really listen to the answers, you can measure the opportunity against your own values and strengthen your decision-making process while showing respect for the asker by engaging in meaningful conversation.

These are goals worth striving for and a world worth building. Surely this is something we can all say “yes” to.

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