How to Say, “No” In Difficult Situations

and build better personal boundaries.

The problems we have with productivity are not always due to lack of organization or time management. Sometimes it’s just because we commit to more things that we can handle. We end up spread out too thin, like butter scraped over too much bread, and lacking focus to finish what we started.

Often we don’t even make the conscious decision to commit to that many things, it just happens because we can’t say, “No.”

Here are some scenarios in which that happens often.

  • Your friend asks you for a favor that you hate doing, but you can’t say, “No” because he will think you’re a bad friend.
  • Your boss asks you to do a task you hate doing, but you can’t say, “No” because you’re afraid you’ll get fired.
  • Your partner asks you to do something that you hate doing, but you can’t say, “No” because you don’t want them to get mad and start an argument.

The two problems we’ll focus on here is when you should say “No” and howto say it to get the best possible outcome.

When you should say, “No.”

There are 3 types of situations where we should consider saying, “No”.

  1. We want to do it but we don’t have time for it.
  2. We don’t want to do it and there are no better alternatives
  3. We don’t want to do it but we’re afraid of the outcome.

1) Know Your Availability

The first case where you should say “No” is when you’re already overcommitted and taking on more responsibility will make things even worse. The typical fear is that we’re going to miss on a good opportunity.

While this is true, think of what you might lose if you take on the challenge and you fail. Even worse, what if you fail not only the new responsibility but also the ones you’ve had before because you’re spread out too thin.

A great concept, in this case, is the opportunity cost. Most newbie investors think only about the gain. If there’s a high chance of success, they make the investment. They don’t consider the cost of the time and resources they’re putting in or the other available opportunities they can do instead.

So if you’re already booked a 100% think of the opportunity cost before saying “Yes” to something new. A good way to do that is to keep an always up to date calendar, to-do list, and budget. That way with one glance you can see if you can fit in the new opportunity without having to compromise something else.

2) No Better Alternative

These are the cases where you just don’t have a better choice and all other options seem worse. For example, when your boss says, “You either do this or you’re fired” and you don’t have another source of income.

These are the extreme cases where saying, “Yes” and sucking it up is fine. However, you shouldn’t leave it at that and accept the same thing over and over again. Work on coming up with an alternative solution the next time it happens.

Next time your boss goes into, “My way or the highway” mode, maybe you will have an alternative source of income and you’ll be fine with being fired.

3) Fear of the Outcome

This one is an emotional problem. We intellectually know that saying “Yes” in some cases is bad for us, but we just can’t bear the pain of saying “No”.

Those are the cases where you know you’re not going to get anything good out of it. You’re doing it just so you don’t hurt somebody else’s feelings or avoid a conflict.

Why is it so hard to say, “No”?

A big part of the problem is delaying the emotional pain. Even though we know that saying, “Yes” to something we don’t want is bad long term, sometimes we can’t bare the pain so we delay it. We rather suck it up, do something unpleasant to avoid the pain of disappointing someone.

As a result, we get to deal with more pain for doing something unpleasant, but it’s delayed. Since we’re not going to experience it in the moment it doesn’t seem so bad than saying, “No” right now.

None of this is conscious of course, that’s just how our subconscious mind works in the background. It does anything it can to avoid and delay the immediate pain.

So how do we deal with it?

Make the Decision In Advance

Be proactive about it. Don’t wait until the moment you have to say, “No” to make the decision. A lot of the things that we have to decide are recurring and happen over and over again.

If it’s something your boss is making you do, it’s probably not for the first time. If it’s your partner making you take out the trash, it’s probably not for the first time. So you can do some preparation in advance and figure out a good solution for when it happens next time.

How about figuring out an alternative way for the work to get done and offering that solution to your boss? Or trading the responsibility with one of your colleagues for something that you like more? How about hiring someone to help with the cleaning in the house so you don’t have to take out the trash?

These are just simple examples, but the point is that you can come up with a more intelligent solution when you’re thinking about it in advance. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself just because you don’t want to offend the person asking.

Building Healthy Boundaries

You know those people that seemingly have “come take advantage of me” written all over them? We tend to call them pushovers and people pleasers. That happens if a person doesn’t have healthy boundaries.

Having boundaries means being clear what you’re willing to do for other people and what you’re not. It also means you have to clearly define it in advance. It’s not really a boundary if you start building it when someone asks.

A good principle to use for the boundaries is to make sure it’s a win-win. If you help somebody out you should also be a winner. That doesn’t necessarily mean always wanting something in return, but making sure that what you give is worth it.

Doing something for a friend that you hate doing is a lose-win. Working on tasks that you hate doing is a lose-win.

Make sure you set boundaries to automatically reject all requests that are a lose-win. If you don’t let everybody know what your boundaries are, they will try to take advantage of you.

Rejecting other people seems harsh at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Make sure you communicate your motives well. Let the person you’re rejecting why you’re doing it. Help them find a better option and let them know what you are willing to help them with instead.

That way it won’t look like you’re throwing a hissy fit or you’re just in a bad mood. People will learn that you have strong boundaries and will respect you more for it.


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