The art (science?) of saying no


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 10:40 p.m.
Sometimes it's easy to say no, like when the two guys in the white shirts with the Bible pamphlets want to come into your living room and save you.
But most of the time, saying no isn't that easy.
Saying yes has been our answer of choice since Zog first asked Ork to join him in the first recorded T-Rex hunt, although the outing ended badly for both of them.
We say yes because we prefer to be thought of as nice. We say yes to family, even when it means going broke lending money to a chronically employment-challenged brother.
We say yes to friends, even if it means helping move a baby grand down six flights of stairs. We say yes to our boss, even when doing so could trigger a nervous breakdown or at least some involuntary twitching.
Maintaining your well-being in the great yes-or-no debate requires forethought, just as it would if you approached a field decorated in cow plops and knew instinctively that rushing in would be ill-advised.
"It's important to step back and take stock and ask yourself, 'Is this a free choice or am I saying yes to avoid my own discomfort or just to make someone else comfortable?' " said John Forsythe, a clinical psychologist and director of the anxiety disorders research program at the State University of New York at Albany. "People can take on too much just to avoid this or feel that.
"Living to please others can be very constraining. There is a need to be honest and to think through why you are saying yes or no. You need to decide whether your decision will move you forward or is it going to pull you sideways. Then you can say yes easily and mean it, or say no easily and mean it."
This month's Hallmark magazine includes an article about the art of saying no, prompted by a book called "The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever."
It was written by Susan Newman, a social psychologist, after she found herself editing a manuscript as a favor for a friend of a friend whose name she didn't even know.
Newman's research revealed that women are afraid they won't be liked and be viewed as lazy and uncaring if they refuse a request. But it also showed, the article said, that the more we say yes just to please people, the more overloaded and resentful we become.
Hallmark editor-in-chief Lisa Benenson said delaying her response to requests has helped her throughout her career.
"Don't respond with a 'yes' instantly, or you could be sorry," Benenson said. "Say 'Give me a day to think about it.' Make delay your auto response."
The article included samples of everyday requests and suggestions for how to say no.
One was how to say no when someone in your office comes collecting for a gift for a fellow employee. "Give a specific reason, like, 'I don't know Janet that well and I don't feel comfortable having my name on the gift card.' Or simply, 'I'm really strapped at the moment.'
"People often take a wishy-washy response as a 'yes' and keep coming back at you until they wear you down," Benenson said.
Of course, caution should be taken not to take saying no to extremes, except among those who have always secretly longed to be unemployed, divorced and homeless.
And adding no to your vocabulary should not confuse your response mechanisms for all the times when saying yes is the only answer you can possibly give the Girl Scout selling cookies, the 4-year-old boy with his first lemonade stand, the Christmas kettle bell ringer.
You'll recognize yes moments when they come.
They are the counterbalance to the no equation, the antithesis to the salvation peddlers and the telemarketers who rattle us from naps to offer trips around the world and $1 million in spending money.

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