When to Say No
In Gavin de Becker’s book, Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane), he discusses how people often fail to trust their intuition that signals potential threats. We encounter a situation that doesn’t quite feel right – it may not even be something we can articulate – and instead of trusting our gut, we proceed due to social norms or lessons we were taught as children. Although de Becker focuses on the largest stakes for failing to heed our natural warning signals – namely the safety of our children – I’ve recently considered applying his advice to less drastic aspects of our lives: knowing when to say to no to an opportunity.
I find this to be a very tricky endeavor, a balancing act that I don’t always get right, but I seem to be succeeding more often today than in my younger years. On the one hand, I don’t want to automatically say no to opportunities that might allow me to grow, meet new friends and experience new things even if it makes me a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don’t want to commit to participating in activities that I dread, that take me away from things I’m passionate about or that make me unnecessarily anxious.
How do you find a balance? After all, sometime encountering a situation that produces anxiety is exactly what you should do. When should you accept the challenge and when should you walk away from it?
I’m still working on it, but I’ve noticed a few things about my choices over the past few years.
1) When it comes to friends and family, just do it.
I hate letting people down. HATE it. For that reason I’ve sometimes committed to doing things that I didn’t really want to do for fear that my friend or relative would think less of me or that I would feel especially guilty. I’ve come to appreciate this aspect of my character and I’ve learned that it’s better for me to commit to supporting the people in my life even if it’s mildly inconvenient or produces some anxiety. That’s what friends do and I’m okay with it. There have been times in my life when I didn’t support someone the way I should have and I’ve regretted it and sometimes suffered the consequences. The exception to this rule is if there’s someone in your life who is particularly corrosive to your well-being. I imagine that in these situations your intuition will be practically screaming at you to avoid the situation. Best to listen.
2) When it comes to strangers, acquaintances or friends of friends, don’t fall for flattery.
It’s one thing when you’re dealing with friends and relatives, but quite another when confronting strangers or acquaintances, perhaps people you’re not even particularly fond of. In these situations I’ve found that my biggest foe is flattery. Someone thinks I would be especially good at (fill in the blank – playing piano for an event, leading a charitable team, attending a party) and even though I have no interest in the activity, I say yes up front because it makes me feel important and wanted. I’ve discovered that in these situations the first conversation should only be fact-finding in nature, and not until I’ve had a day or two to think things over should I commit. Failing to do so often leads to painful results, and I have failed many, many times, some as recently as this summer! I’m still learning.
3) Consider breaking your word.
This is the one that’s really tough for me. As I said before, I hate letting people down, so once I commit to doing something I’m a very reliable person, but I’ve recently learned that there are situations in which withdrawing my participation leads to a boost in well-being and perhaps a benefit to the other party as well. I’ll never withdraw from a project when It would leave someone high and dry – bowing out of a gig on short notice, for example – but in situations where I know the person(s) will be able to manage without me or will have enough time to find a replacement, I’ve found that it’s perfectly acceptable – if mildly regrettable – to say, “This isn’t working for me. Thanks for the opportunity.” Flattery will try to convince us that we’re indispensable, but the reality is no one is indispensable. In many situations leaving an anxiety-producing situation will leave everyone in a better place eventually. I imagine it’s a lot like ending a relationship, preferably before the wedding date has been set.
4) If an activity can potentially lead you to achieving a life goal, let reason trump fear.
I’ve encountered this a few times in my role as a musician. Sometimes I’ve placed myself in a situation that I didn’t feel comfortable in but I’ve felt that the stakes were high enough to warrant the anxiety. If a record producer told me that he wanted to use several of my songs for a star recording artist, but first he wanted to hear me perform them in front of a live audience, on some level this would be an anxiety-producing nightmare but well worth the effort for an opportunity to have my songs recorded. Sometimes your gut should be overruled. Other times? Not. For example, I’ve learned that my ability to perform classical music in front of an audience produces more anxiety for me that it’s worth. I’m not looking to be a classical artist and there are other forms of music that I enjoy more and play more competently, so now when I play an “offering” piece at the Presbyterian church on Sundays, I play a jazz or pop composition. The congregants seem to appreciate it, and my hands aren’t shaking during the performance!
5) When your cup is full, don’t pour more into it.
A friend of mine once said to his wife: “I can be a good father, a good husband and a good carpenter,” (he was putting an addition on his house) “but I can only be good at two of those things at once. Which do you want me to let go of?” I love this, and I wish more people would be willing to lay things out so succinctly at their workplace. I recently told someone that my volunteer cup is full and that I’m going to start saying no to things even if they’re right up my alley. I’m simply at my limit when it comes to volunteering and won’t take on anything more. When I stop doing one volunteer activity then we can talk about taking on a new challenge. God willing, I’ll have plenty of more years to dabble in new opportunities.
6) Apply your guidelines retroactively.
After writing out this list I applied my rules to four situations I experienced in the past year when I should have said no but didn’t. In each case there was a moment when I should have raised my hands and said, “Thanks for your consideration, but I’m not going to pursue this.” In three of the four situations I did eventually withdraw from the project and was a better for it, but in the future I’d like to trust my gut at the time it tells me to get out and not weeks or months later. It won’t only benefit me, but the people to whom I’ve responded.
So there you have it: some hard-learned wisdom from someone who’s not always known for being wise, unless you include being a wiseass. In summary, when it comes to safely, take de Becker’s advice and heed your intuition. For other things, listen to your gut and give it a vote, but not necessarily a veto. In time you may find the right balance.