How to Say No with Respect

It’s that time of year when people might find themselves feeling stressed with year-end projects looming, family & holiday “stuff” that is just around the corner and we often stretch ourselves too thin. We over-promise, try to cram too much in, say yes when we don’t really want to and find ourselves feeling stuck. Well, here’s some information that could help you get un-stuck, keep your sanity and maintain strong relationships.i-message, leadership, communication, no, respect

(This information comes from the Be Your Best book [1989, 2021] by Linda Adams).

The communication skill we teach for responding to unacceptable requests from others is the Responsive I-Message—a message that clearly communicates “no” when “no” expresses your authentic feelings. Two parts make up a good Responsive I-Message: (1) your self-disclosing message (or assertion) and (2) how the request will affect you.

1. Your Self-Disclosure (Assertion)

This part of the I-Message clearly expresses your decision to decline the request. It can take several forms:

  • “No, I don’t want to.”
  • “I have decided not to.”
  • “I’m choosing not to.”

These statements have a crucial element in common—they accurately communicate your conscious choice, your decision. Although each person will find his or her own style and tone, it’s important to avoid such statements as:

  • “I can’t.”
  • “I won’t be able to.”
  • “I’m too busy right now.”

Such statements convey that you’re not in control of your life, that you’re not responsible for your decisions or actions. Your “no” sounds as if it’s not your own autonomous decision, as if it’s being imposed on you by external forces. It therefore sounds tentative and unreliable. It invites people to argue with you. While you may be feeling strongly unaccepting, your incongruent message communicates a measure of acceptance. Not so the Responsive I-Message.

“I choose not to” leaves no doubt that you’re the source of the decision. The disowning response “I just can’t” invites the reply “Why not?” When you say “I’m too busy right now,” you may imply that you could do it later. It leaves you open to “How about some other time?” Now you have a dilemma: do you comply with the new unacceptable request, or do you continue to disown responsibility by falling back on additional excuses or lies?

2. The Request’s Unacceptable Effect on You

The second part of your Responsive I-Message tells why you choose to say “no.” It’s not always necessary to provide reasons to support every decision to decline a request. Saying “no” in a responsible way sometimes is sufficient, especially if you don’t know the other person very well. Just being able to say “I’ve decided not to go,” without giving any reasons or explanations, is in itself a benefit experienced by many participants in our courses.

However, in most cases it’s advisable to support your decision with your reasons, so the other person doesn’t get the impression you’re being rude, arbitrary, or aggressive, and understands you’re consciously choosing to meet some other legitimate needs. You are, in effect, communicating: “I am choosing not to honor your request, but I value our relationship, and trust you’ll respect my reasons for my decision.” Expressing the reasons for your decisions also helps you clarify and affirm your decision, which reinforces your self-awareness.

The unacceptable effects of a request may come as a tangible or intangible consequence that you anticipate, should you agree to carry out the request. Suppose someone asks you to devote substantial time to some project or activity that is of little or no interest to you. The tangible consequences might include: loss of money, loss of time for other activities, negative effect on health, on family or some other relationship. The intangible effects on you might include: worry, pressure, boredom. All of these possible consequences, tangible and intangible, would enter into your decision to say “no.” Your Responsive I-Message might be: “No, I’ve decided not to work on the committee this year, because I’ve done it for five years now and I’m tired.”

Here are some examples of Responsive I-Messages you can use in reply to unacceptable requests:

  1. “No, I’m not joining the Zoom meeting next week, because I have an important project I need to give all my attention to.”
  2. “No, we don’t want to donate in-person, because we already donate online.”
  3. “No, I’ve decided not to take the position because the hours required will mean I need to pay for extra childcare.”
  4. “No, I really don’t want to lend money right now; I need it for some things in my life.”
  5. “No, I don’t want to go out to lunch today; I am trying to diet and I get too tempted when I’m in a restaurant.”

Very often, such clear, congruent messages are met with understanding, acceptance, even relief. Many people will respect you more for being honest with them. More important, they will appreciate you for trusting them to be able to cope with your saying no.

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