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You’ve probably experienced this. You say ‘yes’ to someone or something and immediately think, “oh no, I probably shouldn’t have agreed to that”.

Your boss may have given you a task that seemed simple, but it ended up creeping in on your main responsibilities. Or you may have said ‘yes’ to helping a friend, but it is turning out to take more effort than you initially expected.

How do you say ‘yes’ while being kind to yourself? Conversely, how do you say ‘no’ while being kind to others?

It’s difficult to draw the line, especially with the myriad decisions and situations we face every day.

The difficulties to saying yes or no

The difficulties to saying yes or no
Shutterstock/ Cosmaa

Saying ‘yes’ isn’t always easy. After all, there are many times when you’re not sure what you’re agreeing to or how much you can commit.

That said, often, the most difficult part of saying ‘yes’ comes when we overestimate our abilities and end up in a situation that we’re not equipped or not willing to handle.

But can you really blame us for defaulting to being accommodative? After all, in Singapore, we grow up in an environment that encourages us to strive for excellence.

Saying ‘yes’ often feels like the natural thing to do. After all, aren’t we encouraged to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone?

Saying ‘no’ has its own fair share of problems as well.

Saying ‘no’ is a no-no for many of us. ‘No’ seems to be too harsh. ‘No’ seems to take too much courage and effort. ‘No’ seems to put us at risk of conflict or disappointing others

As a young child, saying ‘no’ at mealtimes means you still need to clear your plate, even though you were stubbornly sitting there with arms folded and mouth tightly pursed. Your ‘no’ didn’t seem to be taken that seriously.

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In school, saying ‘no’ was even less of an option. ‘No’ to homework? ‘No’ to CCA? Get ready to meet the discipline master.

As children, we are taught to trust those in authority. We are supposed to do what parents, teachers, and others in power tell us to do. Often, we obey out of a fear of being punished, but also out of a desire to please and be loved by people who are important to us.

We carry this conditioning into adulthood. Even more so for adult Singaporean men as we serve our National Service — when they say jump, we say how high!

So that means that many of us end up starting to adult without a clear idea of how to craft a good ‘no’ or even knowing when we should say ‘no’.

So we often end up not saying ‘no’ because we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else, be it a partner, a colleague or friend, or a boss.

Don’t worry, it’s not (entirely) your fault.

So how can we fix this?

Recognise that you’re 100% responsible for yourself

Recognise that you’re 100% responsible for yourself
Shutterstock/ Nadia Snopek

In Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend’s bestselling book, Boundaries, which teaches readers about creating effective boundaries for themselves, the authors make a simple argument: You’re 100% responsible for yourself.

No one else. You’re responsible for what you do, how you feel, and how you think. You’re not responsible for anyone else.

Before you get up in arms, please note, there’s a distinction.

You’re responsible to others like your parents, your boss, or your colleagues in being accountable to them for your actions. But you’re not responsible for them. You can’t change the way they think, the way they feel, or how they do certain things.

The issue with our difficulties in saying ‘no’ lies in the outsized responsibility we feel for others in our lives.

You’re not responsible for their lives.

Author and coach Dr Robert Glover, who wrote No More Mr. Nice Guy, explained it this way: “No one was put on this planet to meet your needs…(and) they weren’t put on this planet to meet anyone else’s needs (except those of their children).

Knowing this helps you recognise that people around you would ultimately take care of their own needs, or at least learn how to.

You don’t have to do everything for them.

Ask for a better ask

Ask for a better ask
Shutterstock/ Colorlife

So what do you do when you find yourself exhausted doing things to meet the demands of everyone except yourself?

Ask for a better ask.

Do you know what others are asking of you? In author Bruce Tulgan’s book, The Art of Being Indispensable At Work, he says: “Take every request seriously enough to do your due diligence. Every good choice you make now will save you and everybody else so much time and trouble later.”

Due diligence starts with insisting on a well-defined “ask”.

He suggests having an intake memo, where you jot down what is being asked of you, in terms of task, expectations, resources provided, and the deadline required.

It is akin to a therapist doing an intake session before accepting a client to determine what their needs are, and whether it is possible to meet those expectations.

Therefore, before you say ‘yes’ in future, have an intake memo at hand. It helps people to know that you’re taking them seriously, and also builds your credibility.

You will be seen as someone dependable, on whom others can rely on to deliver what they need, on time, on target and on budget.

The no-first approach

The no-first approach
Shutterstock/ Mentalmind

I confess. I’m a people pleaser. I always say ‘yes’ even though I may be stretched and not be able to do what is asked of me at that moment.

In saying ‘yes’, I feel as if I get pulled in all directions, by all people, just like the Marvel comic book character Mister Fantastic, with his long, stretchy arms and legs.

So to combat this, I have started to take a no-first approach. It’s something author Rolf Dobelli recommends in his book Art of the Good Life, where he argues that it’s easier to give a no first, and change it to a yes later.

When someone asks something of you today, try making your default answer no.

But do this with an air of gentleness. We are not trying to be unhelpful; instead, we want to be kind to others and ourselves.

It’s worse to get someone’s hopes up, then end up disappointing them by not doing what you had promised or by doing it poorly.

If saying no is anathema to you, try stalling for time, with a “Let me think about it and get back to you with a decision”.

So how do you make gently saying no a habit in your own interactions with others?

Here’s a suggestion. List down everything that’s not okay for you. This relationship deal-breakers could be:

  1. Being expected to reply immediately to texts and emails
  2. Being expected to drop everything to cater to a friend’s non-urgent need
  3. People who are consistently late for appointments
  4. People not doing the work they promised they would do

Items like #1 and #2 teaches you to set boundaries in terms of your friends’ expectations of you.

For example, a friend tells me that she doesn’t check her messages after 10pm. So when I do want to contact her, I either text her earlier, or expect a reply only the next day at the earliest.

Items like #3 and #4 sets your own boundaries for what you expect others to bring to the friendship.

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Saying no can be kind

Sometimes we think that saying ‘yes’ is being kind. This is not always the case.

By doing this when we can’t fulfil our promises, we end up hurting ourselves and the people we agree to help.

Saying ‘no’ isn’t about being nasty. It’s about being kind to yourself and others, by managing their expectations so that you can deliver on what you have promised.

Think of it this way: Would you rather be selective and make every “yes” a great success; or agree to everything and then fall short on your promises?

Say no first. And yes later, when you can, want to and are clear of what’s being asked of you.

That’s a way of being kind to others and yourself.

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