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When to say ‘no’ to saying ‘yes’

I have to get this article to the editor at The SUN in the next five hours.

Why have I let myself get down to the wire with hardly a word on the page yet?

Because I’ve been saying “yes.”

“Yes” to a friend who needed help with a big project.

“Yes” to a coworker who is having boyfriend problems.

“Yes” to a neighbor who needs her plants and garden watered while she’s gone for six weeks.

“Yes” to helping with another fund-raising event.

“Yes” to traveling out to California to babysit my grandson for 10 days while the nanny is on vacation.

It is not that I am unfamiliar with the word “no.” The problem runs deeper than that.

If, like me, you have difficulty turning down a request from a friend, a relative, a coworker, or even a complete stranger, chances are this is closely tied to your self identity — the story you tell about the kind of person you are or want to be. Loyal. Supportive. A team player.

For me, the small requests — the ones that cost me relatively little — are hardest: making phone calls, responding to an e-mail, or helping out a friend. Saying no seems petty and selfish–– not the kind of person I want to be. Yet, these small favors often eat up an entire day. Learning to say no to little things can actually prevent me from bartering my life away.

I’m trying to get a better handle on what I’m saying yes to, and why. I don’t want to start turning down requests left and right. And just because something is difficult or burdensome doesn’t mean I should automatically say no to it. I want to help my friend with her big project, and I enjoy looking after my grandson (and stepping in when my son and daughter-in-law need help). So, yes, these things were important enough to me that I wanted to make time for them. I would call these “good yeses.”

Some of the other items, however, were “bad yeses.” I said yes to the coworker who wanted to unload her boyfriend problem because I was on the spot and couldn’t think of a way out. Or I said yes because the invitation was more appealing than what I was supposed to be working on at that time. My goal isn’t to start saying no to everything, it’s to agree to the things that matter to me most.

When I say yes to helping with a fund-raising event, it often means saying no to something else. Anyone who has worked on a major fund-raising event will tell you about the tradeoffs. We get less sleep, we spend less time with the family, and our exercise program gets temporarily derailed. Or we end up shortchanging everything, so that we don’t do as good a job as we should like to at anything. While these costs may be small in isolation, they can have cumulative effects on our relationships with others and on our physical and emotional well being.

As I try out this new role of not saying yes too quickly, I realize a big step is to buy myself some time so I can cut down on the “reactive yes.”

“Can I count on you to host another fund-raising dinner at your house?” asks the nonprofit director. After figuring out who the benefit will benefit, I tell the director I will get back to her. I want to buy time to explore my alternatives. I’m getting better at not simply saying yes because I don’t want to disappoint someone or look like a stick-in-the-mud.

When I come back, I’m likely to negotiate. A conditional yes allows me to delineate the conditions under which I am willing to help. And it shares with the other person the responsibility to mitigate the demand on me.

I’ve also been practicing a “yes-no-yes” approach. With my coworker who urgently needs to do the 101st rehash of her recent breakup, my response is, “I really wish I had time to talk today, because I know this is a difficult period. I just can’t do it right now. Can we take a walk and talk tomorrow night instead?” A cautionary note: if your second yes is an offer to help in a different way, make sure you are willing and able to do it.

I’ve found all the different steps to be effective and consistent with my wanting to be a good friend and a good person. I still say yes to the things that are important to me. But by pausing to consider my priorities and constraints and the costs of saying yes before the word automatically flies out of my mouth, I can make better decisions about what I should really be saying no to. And that makes each yes that much more genuine and valuable to those who are asking.

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