171 - Why is it so hard to say NO?

11-05-2024

personal development

The difficulty in saying NO is a common one. I have family who’ve never refused a dinner invitation. Friends who would rip out a fingernail than turn someone down.

Regardless, I’ve come to believe that the struggle to say NO is a very personal one.

If you find it hard to say NO, you may justify it by talking about the fear of the reaction from the recipient of bad news. You may point to the specifics of the circumstances that make it untenable for you to refuse the ask. You may feel pity for the help-seeker’s situation. You may suggest that the relationship means a lot to you. You may clarify that you have to say Yes now to get back a Yes some time later when you need it. All of this happens in the realm of explaining. All of this is you making up a story to explain how your action would lead to particular outcomes.

This piece is not about the legitimacy of your story. It is about what is under the surface of your explanations, in the realm of exploration, that is often left undiscovered.

Popular advice to deal with such situations is tactical. Don’t say Yes on the phone; it triggers a knee-jerk reaction. Calculate the opportunity cost before giving an answer so that you make the best trade-off. Be firm and clear in your communication; don’t say “I can’t” when you mean “I don’t.” And so on.

These probably do the trick but they may not resolve the dilemma inside you. At this point, you and I cannot go any deeper without addressing the most powerful behavioral lever there is in this whole business: reciprocity.

Reciprocity is such a powerful agent that it often creates a struggle within the self between one value that you want to challenge (like repaying reposed trust) and another value that you want to serve (like listening to your heart and doing things you truly want to do).

You feel your boss has invested much in you but then you find an opportunity elsewhere that is just the right one for you, and it tears you to bits to make the decision to go grab that opportunity. Yet this is probably the upper reaches of trust. Your human need to cooperate kicks in at a much more basic level as well, in everyday situations. Someone may ask you for a favor, which you may see as a show of trust in your capacity to help them and may then feel the urge to square off that show of faith by abandoning your plans and going out of your way to help.

I’m talking about situations that happen with your family, with your employer, with your friends, with absolute strangers you don’t owe a dime. What keeps such situations going?

Until you acknowledge the tussle between two competing values within you, you may find yourself caught up in such dilemmas again and again. Notice I keep saying dilemma and not conflict.

Go back to earlier in this piece to the explanations people offer for not being able to say NO. Underneath each of those stories is a conflict over values that you're trying to sort out by citing facts. That doesn’t work. That’s what turns the conflict into a dilemma.

Dilemma because you feel guilty if you say no and you resent yourself if you say yes.

So you decide to repay someone’s trust? BUT you wonder if you're becoming a people pleaser.

Or you decide to follow your heart and stay true to yourself? BUT you wonder if you’re undeserving of trust for not having repaid a debt of it.

The question that you need to explore is simple, though not easy: Which value do you want to serve more?

Yes, you want to show yourself as worthy of trust. But you want to stay true to yourself even more. Or vice versa. Making a distinction between competing values is critical. You do this best by articulating your own hierarchy of values.

Let this hierarchy guide your patterns of thought under the surface that show up as actions and behaviors over the surface.

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