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How to Learn to Say ‘No’

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We routinely overestimate the cost of saying no

Answer by Eva Glasrud, on Quora.

A while back, I answered Do women have a harder time saying “no” than men? If so, why?

Basically what I wrote is that everyone in our culture has a hard time saying no. For a couple of reasons, including:

1. Hardly anyone “just says no.” We say, “I would, but…” “If it had been any day but today…” In other words, when people ask for something, you’re probably giving them an explanation as to why you must say no.

But this gives them a chance to try again. To find a little workaround. “Oh, you’re busy this week? How about next week?” “Oh, the drive is too far? Let’s meet half way!” (And, as I discuss below, saying no the first time makes you more likely to say yes out of guilt the second time.)

So if you want to say no better, JUST SAY NO. Practice different polite but assertive ways of doing it that contain no explanation/workaround, such as,

  • “I can’t this time.”
  • “Sorry — not today.”
  • “That won’t work for me right now — but I’ll get back to you if anything changes.”
  • “I really appreciate you thinking of me, but I’ve just got too much on my plate right now.”

2. In a way, saying no is a form of aggression. But people are generally cooperative and social, so we overestimate the cost of saying no. (Which is why, generally, if you ask for something, people say yes — even if the reason you give for the ask is complete gibberish, e.g., “Can I cut you in line to use the copier because I need to use the copier.”)

I repeat: WE ROUTINELY OVERESTIMATE THE COST OF SAYING NO.

Keep this in mind next time someone asks you for something. Saying no isn’t as bad as you think.

3. Be mindful of persuasion techniques that people often use when making an ask. Common ones include

  • Reciprocity. People often give you something before making an ask. This is because they know about the psychological tendency to want to reciprocate.
  • Making two asks. When people ask for something and you say no, they increase the odds that when they ask for something else (usually something smaller), you’ll say yes. “Well, if you won’t donate $100, could you at least ____?”
  • Anchoring – “Most people donate $X,” “Most other parents volunteer Y hours,” etc.
  • Establishing similarity between asker and askee.
  • Physical attractiveness.

Pay attention to what people are asking you for and how. And don’t let them game you.

4. You have to be a little selfish. In general, I consider myself to be pretty good at saying no. This is because I’ve had to. When I play basketball, I’m usually the only girl. And the boys always try to tell me what to do, who to guard, etc. If I don’t say no, I’m wasting my time guarding worse opponents, playing positions I don’t like, getting fewer passes, etc.

I’ve also done a fair amount of hitchhiking. This is one situation where, if something doesn’t feel right, you HAVE to say no. You might hurt someone’s feelings if you do — but if you don’t, you could DIE.

So think about it that way. If you don’t say no, you could die. Saying yes adds extra stress to you life. It eats into your leisure time. It shortens your life. It increases your blood pressure and decreases our immune system. It could lead to less sleep, less exercise, and a less healthy diet.

There are some things you can never have back. Your time, your health, your virtue, your life. Don’t mess around with those things. It’s fine for people to ask — most likely, in their mind, they’re trying to help introduce you to a great person or opportunity or meaningful cause. And it’s just as fine for you to say no.

Also see Eric Pepke‘s answer. I love it.

This question originally appeared on Quora: How can a person learn to say “no”?

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