Cafe Witness

Thursday, October 18, 2007

When Do You Say "No"?

Here's a near-universal question we can all relate to:

Have you ever been employed by a company that took great pains to convince you how fortunate you were to be employed by them? So fortunate, in fact, that you should be happy with the following perks:

* A substandard salary

* Being overworked and underappreciated

* A general inability to produce quality work due to inferior working conditions, and

* A dedicated team effort to NOT improving those existing conditions?

On paper, most people would walk away from a job like that at the earliest possible opportunity. Some might even go out of their way to CREATE an opportunity to leave.

And yet... SO MANY PEOPLE remain in jobs they despise (or relationships that make them miserable, or servicing clients they can't stand) because they don't know how much they, themselves, are worth.

Do you?

The "No" Factor

When was the last time you said "no" when someone asked you for a favor?

We're trained to believe that friends, family, coworkers and employees -- aka "nice" people who want to live peacefully within an existing system -- don't say "no." Instead, they say "yes," and then they find creative ways to juggle the extra work / errands / obligations.


Because saying "no" would create strife.

It would force the person who was relying on you to then handle that problem himself. And, worse, it might mean YOU were unreliable, or not well-organized enough to shift your workload at a moment's notice, or -- worst of all -- that you said "no" because you didn't LIKE someone else.

No one wants to rock the boat like that. So we say "yes" endlessly.

That's because we have no idea what we -- and, therefore, what our time -- is actually worth.

Snapshots of Impending Disaster

Your boss walks into your office and says, whoops, he forgot to inform production that a certain project was promised to the client by Thursday. Sorry, you'll have to work late.

A coworker stops by on his lunch break and says, hey, he forgot he had something else planned after work -- could you cover him at a company event?

Your brother calls and asks, please, would you mind babysitting tomorrow night because they just got tickets to a concert?

Before you reflexively agree (or disagree) in each of these situations, you first need to understand what your answer says about you, and how you present yourself to the world.

The Problem With "Yes"

Admitting that you can rearrange your schedule at the whim of another means that you don't consider your own plans to be particularly important -- especially when compared to the plans of someone else.

Adding additional tasks into your existing workflow means that you're either SO competent at your current job that you don't mind the extra work (which begs the question, "So what DO you do all day?") or it means the work you're doing is so unimportant that it can wait an extra day or two while you do someone else's (in which case, why ARE they employing you in the first place?).

And consenting to work late, especially when the reason involves someone else's mistake or mismanagement of their own time and resources, implies that you're willing to subvert and sacrifice your own health, happiness and peace of mind for "the good of the company."

Would you ever say any of those things out loud? No!

And yet, when you chronically say "yes," that's exactly what you're admitting.

The Power of "Yes, But..."

Inevitably, there will be situations in which you'll have to work late, you'll have to cover for someone else and, yes, you'll have to drop everything to help a friend.

Those are exceptions, not rules. And the way in which you ensure that those are exceptions is to not answer "yes," but,"yes, but..."

Yes, you'll work late this week -- but you're taking next Friday off.

Yes, you can cover for your coworker -- but only if he gets you tomorrow's reports today.

Yes, you can babysit tomorrow night -- but you need to borrow your brother's camping gear next weekend.

Why "But" Matters

Saying "yes" invariably means you're sacrificing something of yours for the good of someone else, and you think that's okay.

Saying "yes, but" means you're open to helping out, but not at the expense of your own well-being.

If you're losing time, you expect that time to be made up.

If you're disrupting your workflow, you'll do so in conjunction with someone else.

If you're losing freedom, you expect to exercise that freedom elsewhere.

What you're NOT doing is subverting your own independence and autonomy for the sake of another, because that sets a precedent that invites your job / coworkers / friends / family to continually take advantage of you -- subconsciously or not.

Aren't you worth more than that?

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  • Wow, you write so well..

    I have to come clean here I am one of those people who say no more than yes.

    I learnt the hard way though, growing up always pleasing people and putting myself and ideas second.

    All that changed in my mid 20s and I decided I was the centre of MY universe, since then I have happily and in fact take pleasure in saying no an aweful lot.

    My basic take is we are not very effective in most situations unless we say NO and argue alot (in the sense of wrestle with concepts), arguing is in fact a very dynamic process...

    In a day I probably say no 9/10th more than a yes.

    Do I care if I seem mean, or argumentative, or advocting? Not one bit, nope, nope, nope.

    I said NO ok?

    By Anonymous Chris Hambly, at 3:05 PM  

  • "No" became easier for me to say once my focus switched from MONEY to TIME.

    The fact of the matter is that if I do something for someone else, that means I'm giving up my ability to do what *I* want to do, whether that's for myself or for someone else. Whether that's my own personal enjoyment, learning something new and useful, making money, doing something that I WANT to do for someone else.... Whatever it is, if someone asks me to do something for them, I'm more interested in the loss of TIME than MONEY.

    However, it's not exactly... "no"... It's "If you want this done, this is what it's going to cost you". That ends up being "no" for people, because the expenses are prohibitive.

    If the project's just garbage, then I'll decline to be involved with it at all. If I think it's a cool project, then it becomes a trade-off. I give them what they want if they give me what I want. I'm the one that has to judge how much my time spent on THEIR project is worth to me, and they're the ones that have to decide if they want ME to work on their project or not.

    By Blogger Bill Cammack, at 3:11 PM  

  • This entry has completely changed the way I will respond to people in the future. (Well, hopefully)

    I almost always agree to help someone out, unless it's impossible or truely inconvenient for me to do so. I don't believe anyone has taken advantage of this trait but I'm not going to wait for that to happen now.

    From this point on, whenever someone asks a favour of me I will pause momentarily instead of instantly agreeing. I'll consider anything I have in the future that I might need their help with first. Then if they're willing to trade their time or effort for mine, it's fair for both.

    By Anonymous Glenn Webber, at 4:52 PM  

  • I don't know quite how respond to this. I say yes a lot, usually because people ask me to do stuff that is fun, or can be (depends on how you look at it). For instance, working late at a job, if you like the job, why would working a few extra hours be bad, especially if you're getting overtime. I used to be an unofficial teacher assistant an d not get paid because I just liked helping out the upcoming animation students.

    I believe the main argument against this, is the saying, "When life throws you lemonade.." Let's face it, life is unfair.

    I say yes to a lot of the favors my friends ask, because, when in turn, I ask for a favor, they remember that I helped them out. When non-friends do it, I quickly make a list of pros and cons off the top of my head and determine from there. For instance, tutoring kids, chances are, they suck, won't listen and will waste time. Money isn't worth it, so why do I do it. Well, because from experience, one of my best friends was my tutor, so it's a way for me to meet new people and not get so stuck in my own little group of classmates.

    I don't think the yes needs to come with the but to be powerful, because you'll soon realize who's really your friend and who's just out to use you.

    By Blogger Philip, at 7:49 PM  

  • Nice write up... Understanding intentions goes a long way. Your post reminds me of several recent articles in Ophra... Here's one..

    By Blogger EscVector, at 8:00 PM  

  • I said NO to someone a few weeks back. He'd asked me REPEATEDLY to ask people to digg his stuff via Twitter, and the first three or four times, I felt okay with it. I felt that he's a good guy, just wants a little exposure, and I've got a good list of followers.

    But then, after the fifth or sixth time, I really started to feel used. I felt like a service, like a or something.

    It didn't feel nice at all.

    So he asked again, a nice little email with yet another digg to digg, etc., and I replied with one word: "no."

    I haven't heard back since.

    Honestly, I'm mixed in my emotions on this. I felt used, and yet, I'm forever worried that I'm going to be perceived as a dick. That time, I chose to be a dick, so it wasn't even perception. I just said no.

    But your post just now made me feel better about it. Thank you.

    By Blogger Chris Brogan, at 11:40 AM  

  • You hit it on the nail. Setting boundaries is SO important and something that needs to be practiced everyday in every relationship we have, even with ourselves.

    By Blogger latinbombshell, at 1:56 PM  

  • I started learning to say, "No," or "Yes, but…" when I was working back in the 90s, but I had to get much better at it as I started to become disabled.

    I worked for a series of startup and/or internet/telecom firms, and there was always a big focus on "being a team player" and so on. Somehow, though, certain members of the team got much more support and appreciation than others. (I've become very suspicious of that entire phrase as a passive-aggressive attack, or indication of long hours without overtime pay.) The same went for taking more and more stock options instead of actual money in one's paycheck.

    As a parent, I had to start saying, "Sorry, but stock options don't buy groceries." Or, "Yes, I can put in more time on your project, if I can telecommute while doing it. I have to pick up my kids."

    I was very nervous about doing that at first, but I found that I was more respected for setting firm boundaries.

    These days, it's usually extended family events or social engagements to which I have to say, "No," or a very cautious, "Maybe." Whether I'd enjoy them or not, I can't be sure of how I'll be feeling on any particular day. And even if I'm feeling good, my immediate family and other commitments (like college) have the first call on that time. At least I got practice at work before needing it at home!

    Oh, um, hi! I got here via a tweet from Susan Reynolds, I think!

    By Blogger technomom, at 12:24 PM  

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