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woman putting her hand up to say no
Can’t say no? Why sometimes it’s fine to decline

It’s only two letters, and one tiny syllable. Toddlers don’t seem to have any trouble with it, so why does the word ‘no’ become more difficult to say the older we get?

As a lecturer in psychology in Deakin University’s Faculty of Health and co-manager of the student placement program, Cathy Caballero sees this issue of people who can’t say no come up a lot – in a workplace context, but also other areas.

‘We balance a lot of stakeholders across our family, personal and work lives, and obviously there’s constantly decisions that we’re having to make about how we spend our time or what we do in those contexts,’ she says.

You might be able to get away with saying ‘yes’ to everything for a while, but ultimately you risk under-delivering or burnout. And then nobody wins.

Why is it so hard to say ‘no’?

Our trouble with saying no is multi-layered and stems from a few interesting factors. In short, these are:

Altruism. The willingness and desire to help others is a beautiful thing. But sometimes that strong tendency can be difficult to override when someone is asking for a favour, especially if we see it as part of our role to help people.

The desire to be liked. ‘As human beings we have a natural affiliation towards other people, and this can manifest itself as a desire to be liked by others,’ Caballero says, ‘so there’s that assumption that if you say no to something you might be less likable.’

Fear of negative consequences. This might be the fear of conflict as a result of saying no or, Caballero suspects more commonly, a fear of letting someone down.

A sense of obligation. ‘There are assumptions that we make about what’s expected of us in those various roles as family members, partners, friends and work colleagues,’ Caballero explains, ‘and sometimes those assumptions make it difficult to say no.’

Fear of missing out. FOMO is naturally a root cause in many cases, and why ‘a lot of people are overcommitted in different aspects of their lives’, Caballero says. ‘Social, at work, or some of those extracurricular and volunteer activities.’

The pressure to respond. When you take any combination of the above unseen influences and mix in the pressure to say something – anything! – in response to a request, it’s little wonder many of us have blurted out a ‘yes’ before we know it.

'As human beings we have a natural affiliation towards other people, and this can manifest itself as a desire to be liked by others. So, there’s that assumption that if you say no to something you might be less likable.'

Cathy Caballero,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

But if you can’t say no, not only does that set you up for burnout, it can also build up resentment, ‘Because you’re doing something that’s pushing against what’s important to you, or that you don’t really want to be doing,’ Caballero says. That sort of attitude means you might actually be doing the other person a disservice, too.

So saying yes automatically can in fact be damaging to our relationships – one of the three essential areas to focus on for a happy life. Yet another reason why it’s important to learn when and how to say no.

How to say no like a pro

The first tip is to do some self-reflection to evaluate what your values are, what’s important to you, and what you do and don’t want out of life. The more clarity you have on your authentic self, Caballero says, the more likely you are to identify when saying yes to something will bring you out of alignment, and the more confidence you will have when you need to say no.

Her next tip is to ask lots questions. This buys you time to think about the request, while also helping get you really clear on whether or not you have the capacity, energy, or desire to commit to it.

‘How many times have you said yes to something, only to find out it was more involved than you anticipated?’ Caballero says. ‘And then by that stage you’re neck-deep in it and it’s too late to back out.’

Now for the tricky bit. If you’ve decided to respond in the negative, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt found that framing refusals around ‘I don’t’ as opposed to ‘I can’t’ helps us say no more effectively. Plus, it’s harder to argue with.

‘If you say “I don’t have capacity” it’s a lot harder to challenge than “I can’t do it”, because that’s ambiguous,’ Caballero explains. ‘You have to be really clear so you don’t get that pushback.’

Try to notice when you’re making assumptions around what is expected of you, or that you’ll be letting someone down, she adds, and recognise that they are just that: assumptions. You might in fact be doing them a favour by declining, because they can go and find someone who’s more willing and able to say yes.

Caballero points out the important things to remember are, ‘you can’t do everything or be all things to all people’ and ‘everyone has a right to say no’. So next time someone asks you to go above and beyond, don’t listen to Nike. Don’t just do it.

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Cathy Caballero
Cathy Caballero

Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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