"N & N" – No & Negotiate – Tools and Techniques for Saying "No": Establishing Priorities, Setting Limits, and Solving Problems – Part II

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Part I of this three-part essay, “Why Is It Hard to ‘Just Say No’?: Ten Barriers to Asserting Your Individuality, Intentionality, and Integrity,” focused on ten psychosocial barriers to affirming priorities, setting boundaries, and saying “No!” The ten basic barriers and challenges to saying “No”:

10. Fear of Standing Out


Clearly, these can be powerful deterrents to recognizing and experiencing your individuality and integrity, that is, your genuine needs, wants, joys, fears, passions, and beliefs, also establishing your credibility…as well as affirming your separate and genuine self or true spirit. Learning to say “No” is vital for surviving and thriving in today’s ever demanding, work-life boundary busting world.

“N & N” – “No & Negotiate” – Tools and Techniques for Saying “No”

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While “Just Say ‘No'” has become a pat phrase (not unlike “Have a Good Day”) putting this affirmative concept into action frequently becomes a thorny if not daunting challenge. The Stress Doc provides ten strategies for turning popular and too often simplistic expression into applied and substantive reality.

Here is the First Five of “The ‘N & N’ Top Ten”:

1. Clean Up Your Static to Give a Clear Message. Saying “No” is not easy, especially if you believe the other party will be disappointed, feel rejected, or become angry and vindictive. There’s a tendency to either delay or dilute the limit-setting message. And for a person who consistently accepts a deadline while knowingly withholding reservations about its achievability and then, at the eleventh hour, apologetically admits to not being able to make good on his promise, there’s a label: passive-aggressive “stress carrier.” Ouch! (And you know the definition of a stress carrier: a person who doesn’t get ulcers…just gives them!)

So confront your anxiety about hurting the other or of being hurt. Don’t engage in overprotection or infantilization; the other person is responsible for handling his or her own emotions. And beware of projecting your own fear of rejection in a conflict situation; that is, you may be the one struggling with rejection, not your antagonist. Even more basic, if experiencing

a) emotional defensiveness – making excuses, denying a real problematic issue, etc.,
b) static – generalized stress induced worry, obsession, etc., or comparing yourself negatively to the other, and/or
c) flooding – feeling overwhelmed, ashamed, or personally “injured” by critical comments during the interpersonal encounter try to defuse any impulsive or reactive energy and behavior. Try using self-dialogue to acknowledge feeling hurt, scared, or angry, and then talk yourself down. If necessary, declare a “time out” for reflection and regaining emotional equilibrium.

a. Consider the “Reflective and Responsive” Mantra: Count to Ten and Check Within. The standard advice when you’ve “had it up to here” with someone and want to verbally explode or simply lash out is, of course, “Count to ten.” And while I see some merit, for me the cautionary counsel falls a bit short. In the heat of battle, if thrown off guard, I can just imagine myself methodically counting, “1-2-3-4,” then suddenly shifting gears, flying through 5 through 9, and at “10” blurting out, “You bozo!” (Even the Stress Doc is susceptible to that “You”-ruption every once in a while; though the words of French novelist Andre Gide from his book, The Immoralist, often helps me silently, if not serenely, place people and positions in perspective: One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else!)

So how can you trump a knee-jerk “reaction?” Actually, to be less reactive, all you need is some of those well-developed multi-tasking skills to transform the old saw into a new aphorism. (As an aside, while the younger generation is particularly adept at multi-tasking (and also frequently misguided when it comes to being “mindful” trumping multi-tasking), I suspect folks of any age who primarily hyper-speed through life may have some initial difficulty being personally reflective and psychosocially attentive.) Anyway…my poetic mantra: Count to ten and check within. That is, while you are counting (and centering yourself or trying to calm) down, ask one or more of these questions, which may also slow the countdown: “What am I feeling right now?” Am I attributing all my hurt or anger to “the other”; am I about to vent with a blaming “You”? Is it possible that some of my outrage reveals that my own “hot button” or emotional baggage issues have been pushed, triggered, or stirred? Am I confronting my “Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure?”

Personal Interpersonal Example. Consider this self-inventory process, though, admittedly, one several years in the making. A heated exchange followed by quiet discussion enabled my partner to finally realize that my behavior was not equivalent to the immature actions of her ex; my actions were not really firing up her emotional cauldron. It was her own low boiling point – worn down by an erosive and divisive marriage – helping to trigger her impatience and anger with her present partner. (Though, of course, I certainly bring some of my own stuff to our intimate interaction.) The real “hot button” was her self-regret, shame, and rage for not being strong enough to leave sooner a mostly dysfunctional “thirty year” marriage. Clearly, “separation anxiety/being on my own” fear constricted her options; there were some irreparable consequences for the children, the adults, and the family as a whole. However, having the courage to face your sadness and remorse softens the anger and rage that otherwise turns inward and/or gets acted out onto others. And this deeper awareness should help a dyad’s interaction be less defensive and reactive.

When to Check Within and Without

After completing this rapid internal audit, if still confused or frustrated while in the heat of battle, then build upon the mantra: Count to ten and check within…when in doubt, check without! Alas, my poetic addition may be a tad ambiguous. So let’s clarify some possible interpretations of check without:

a) check outside yourself; ask the other to clarify his or her message, e.g., “I’m not clear about what I’m hearing”;
b) check or set limits on a hostile communicator, e.g., “I don’t mind feedback, even critical feedback, but hostility and condescension are not acceptable! Let’s try again”;
c) check in with an open mind, that is, without bias, making every effort to consciously suspend your assumptions and prejudgments; e.g., “I must admit I’m not neutral in this matter, but I will attempt to listen with an open and objective mind.”

The Paradoxical Power of “Time Out” or Retreat. If issues remain troubling upon “checking within and without,” remember, you may momentarily retreat yet still be palpably real and paradoxically present. You may check out to check in: “I’m way angry right now, and don’t want to put my foot in my mouth (or your butt). I’m not running out; I’m taking a time out. I want to think about this, and I will get back to you first thing in the morning. From my perspective, we are not finished.” And remember, especially in the workplace, if a time out does not lead to a pass in the impasse, and you can envision further interpersonal head-butting, you may want to put your cards on the table; share your intention of seeking formal or informal third-party assistance or mediation.

Clearly, strategic-reflective retreating is not giving up but stepping back in order to cool down, lick wounds, reevaluate, perhaps talk with a “stress buddy,” integrate head and heart, gain new perspective and strategy, and then responsibly reengage. (Of course, there are times, for example, in the instance of child abuse, when an aggressor-predator-enabler has clearly earned “You”-focused confrontation, condemnation, formal reporting, and legal intervention.)

The key to delivering a clean “No” message in a timely, if not immediate, manner is being clear and upfront in your own mind. In addition, there is a “tactfully assertive” art and method of boundary setting that will help you establish limits while gradually encouraging a mutual discussion and problem-solving process. Read on!

2. Be Empathic yet Firm. In the face of another’s request or demand, saying “No” and slamming the door while walking out of the office or room is immature. (Of course, a blow up may also indicate that you feel trapped in a no-win or abusive situation. Maybe it’s time to rethink your position, or to leave without slamming or being slammed.) Storming out can also be self-defeating. The recipient of such hostility will likely find ways to get even – overtly or covertly. The preferred approach: if possible, before delivering your “No” try to acknowledge the request without being defensive: “I know this project is important to you.” If you are able, itemize the reasons for its importance, e.g., an upcoming deadline, achieving a specific goal, or the negative consequences for missing a deadline or compromising an objective.

How to Say “No.” Now, clearly and decisively say “No” while concisely explaining why you can’t meet the request as presented, e.g., the number of items on your plate. Then strategically balance your own “No” with, “However, here’s what I can do”; for example, “While I can’t help you with ‘abc’ right now, I might be able to help you with ‘def.’ Try calling me back in two days about ‘abc’.” Remember, you are allowed to place some responsibility on the party asking a favor. (Part III will also provide tips when an “‘abc’ to ‘def'” offering is likely not possible – dealing with a “big boss.”)

How Has Your “No” Been Received? Ask for feedback, especially if the other party is perturbed by your initial position. (See Part II #8.) If your “No” and your tactfully assertive counter make an initial connection with the “Four Problem-Solving ‘P’s” – the other person’s Pain and Passion, Purpose and Power – you will be laying the groundwork for “N & N”: No and Negotiation. (And connecting to a “power” issue may both involve recognizing the other’s strengths and/or understanding his vulnerability or feeling of futility.)

3. Use Relevant Facts and Place Issue in Context. For example, if a manager asks you to work on the weekend, responding in the following manner is less than a desirable strategy: “You always ask me to work on the weekend. You’re not being fair. I’m not doing it!” One problem with the response is that it’s too global: “You always ask me.” The second sentence is a “blaming barb.” And out of frustration, by impulsively declaring, “I’m not doing it,” you come across somewhere between being petulant and defiant. You are also slamming the door on potential clarification, negotiation, and consensus building.

A Smarter Strategy. A cooler and wiser approach is being objective, not objectionable. For example, try saying: “I’m frustrated. I’m not sure you realize that it’s the third time this month that I’ve come in on the weekend. I know this project is out of the ordinary; and I do want to be a team player. However, maybe we need a better department-wide system for enlisting weekend workers. By waiting till Thursday afternoon for recruiting whoever’s available, the weekend workload is not falling equally on department personnel. I’d like to bring this up on Monday in a department meeting.”

You may decide to work the weekend in hopes of having the boss “owe you.” Obviously, being “on call” is built into some job descriptions. If being available 24/7 doesn’t apply, then, even without specific weekend plans, you have the right to protect your home-life and work-life boundaries. Alas, if you have a boss who, on a consistent basis, won’t respect such boundaries and there is no recourse for appealing to a higher authority (besides praying fervently) then it may be time to reassess the viability of your job situation.

4. Use Assertive “I”s Not Blaming “You”s. There is an art to expressing frustration and anger. Blurting out blaming “You” messages, e.g., “You’re not fair,” “It’s your fault,” or as previously mentioned, the global, “You always,” not only highlights gaps in your communication capacity. In addition, this approach only throws fuel on the feedback fire. The other party will likely become defensive-aggressive or passive-aggressive, perhaps getting even at a later time. As noted, you can be assertive and tactful when making an objective point: “I’m not sure you realize I have worked three weekends this month.” Using tentative phrasing – “I’m not sure” – is often a sign of strength; you don’t come across as superior or condescending. (Of course, there are times when its use reflects questionable motives. After a workshop, I recall a judge sharing that he liked my tactful yet tactical “I’m not so sure” counter in the heat of a potentially “right vs. wrong” power struggle. He thought he might try it out with some of those provocatively aggressive attorneys with whom he battles daily: “I’m not so sure…you a-hole!” Umm, judge…you don’t have to credit me for your new approach to engagement.)

a. Be Specific and Objective or Tactfully Subjective. Obviously, be careful about using provocative language that seems to label, blame, or critically judge someone as “unfair” or a “fabricator” (let alone a body part). Focus your comments and concern on the specific problematic behavior. Of course, when there has been a pattern of problematic behavior or decision-making, emotional subjectivity may need to be addressed before objectivity can be achieved. Consider an opening that drops the exasperated, blaming “You”s: “I have to say I’m confused and frustrated” (rather than “You’re driving me nuts”). “Here are the facts, and why I believe there’s a problem.” This allows you to blow off some steam without being overly reactive. You are acknowledging and taking responsibility for your emotions and for clarifying the situation. (Btw, what I really want to say to someone who’s accusing me of driving him or her crazy: “Gee, I think you’re giving me way too much credit.” ;-).

By purposefully channeling your aggression you are better able to calmly and effectively assert “the facts.” You also can affirm your beliefs and boundary without being defensive, that is, without blurting out “You’re not being fair; I’m not doing it.” Now your “No” seems less negative. Instead of shutting a door you are opening a problem-solving window that frames the issue in a more useful and inviting manner.

b. Differentiate Blaming “You” vs. Responsible “I” Messages. “You’re always late,” “What’s your problem?” or “You made us look bad.” “You” messages not only assign blame or are judgmental and often global (e.g., “You never”), but they deny any responsibility on the part of the person making those “acc-you-sations.” (And, naturally, a “chronic acc-you-ser” risks becoming a blameaholic!) Actually, even worse, these accusing “You”s often facilitate a transfusion of power: the “acc-you-ser” is increasingly becoming a puppet and is enabling the so-called antagonist to pull all his or her strings.

So, instead of “You’re making me mad” or “It’s your fault,” how about, “I don’t like what’s going on between us. Here’s what I don’t appreciate (or) this is what has me frustrated, concerned, uncomfortable, etc.” Then specifically, clearly, and concisely state your “I”-message concern, e.g., “I prefer being asked or questioned about my reasons for doing XYZ rather than being confronted by global or indirect assumptions. I need for us to talk about what’s going on and clear up our different expectations!”

Breaking Away from Blaming. The shift from blaming or judging involves:

a) asserting one’s own beliefs and perspective and, when necessary, firmly yet respectfully setting limits on the use of “You”-message fault-finding,
b) setting boundaries on a party not respecting one’s physical or psychological space,
c) evolving a perspective that is less focused on the other person’s “faults” (that is, an intrapersonal position) and more concerned with developing an interpersonal, “How are we together generating this situation and what can we do about it?” problem-solving approach, and
d) acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s actions and feelings by using “I”-messages, including acknowledging one’s own strengths and vulnerabilities, likes and dislikes, as well as concerns and irritations.

Such an emotional-communicational shift means being authentically “self”-centered in contrast to being self-absorbed or narcissistically ego-driven. Remember, a healthy “I”-communicator strives for real and respectful, responsible and responsive give and take between the parties.  The narcissist invariably sees life through a “perfect or pathetic,” “black or white” or a “right or wrong” lens, though these may even have superficial rose-colored tinting. This personality inevitably needs to be “one-up” or “in control,” whether through intimidation, withdrawal, or guilt-tripping. And when the surprisingly sensitive narcissist feels his or her hurt is triggered by an alleged provocateur, or by someone who doesn’t appreciate all of his or her sacrifices, then launching the old blamethrower is excusable, if not perfectly justified.

Quickly Bringing the Impact of “You” vs “I” to Life

Of course, a “blameholic” can consciously or not try to disguise weakness or immaturity with a Mr. Bluster mask and manner, if not “smoking hot mirrors.” Still, the difference between affirming “I” responses and offensively defensive “You” reactions is fairly transparent. For example, imagine you are in an argument, perhaps over politics or whether a movie was worth seeing, and the other party suddenly tires of the logical back and forth. Consider the impact of each of these two-word declarations. Can you hear and feel the difference between “You’re wrong” (said with a judgmental tone) as compared to “I disagree” (declared with energy and conviction; or perhaps with a tad more tact, “I see it differently”)?

And when an audience member helps me act out this contrasting two-word scenario, the consistent group facial grimaces (and occasional gasps) reveal the verbal and emotional impact. And quick analysis is illuminating: “You’re wrong” no longer is dealing with the specific issue but is actually dismissive of the other individual. In contrast, “I disagree” is predicated on the other’s position or points of argument, that is, the “I”-response is respectfully problem-focused while a “You”-reaction is often judgmental, “one-up,” and ego-driven.

All or None vs. “Head and Heart.” Finally, I believe reactive “You” messages tend to be one-sided, driven by “right or wrong” and “all or none” presumptions: “all head” (e.g., a coldly intellectual remark or a rejoinder dripping with scarcasm, e.g., “I’m just sure you could not have done anything else?”) or “all heart” (e.g., a wounded or weepy, “feel sorry for me,” outburst or lament). In contrast, a “responsive” “I”-message combines both “head and heart.” An “I” perspective typically attempts to perceive, understand, and integrate multiple perspectives, that is, tries to construct a meaningful assessment of one’s own along with the other’s deeds (and misdeeds), needs, and intentions. Again, “I” messages don’t add fuel to the ire; they tend to be “respectful, real, responsible, and responsive.”

5. Don’t Belabor an Apology or Justification. If you pride yourself on being understanding and accommodating, if you downplay the importance of “giving of yourself and giving to yourself,” then saying “No” can be a challenge to your sense of identity and self-worth. As was illustrated in Part I, numbers of people grew up in families that strictly enforced loyalty to authority: Difference and disagreement were perceived as disapproval and disloyalty. Non-conformity, displays of individuality, along with expressions of anger are often met with guilt-laced tongue-lashings, if not physical beatings. My “Law of the Loyalty Loop and Lock” may have prevailed: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!

So to deliver that clean and clear “NO”…you must believe you have the right to say “No.” (As previously noted: A firm “No” a day keeps the ulcers way, and the hostilities, too!) And this right exists even if you can’t deliver an airtight defense of your position. You are allowed to declare, “As much as I would like, I can’t help you with ABC right now.” You do not have to be like a character in a Franz Kafka novel, living a bureaucratic nightmare, forever on trial and carrying around a vague sense of guilt. (If this plot sounds too familiar, it may be psychotherapy time; much better than Miller Time.)

The Right to Disappoint. As revolutionary as it may sound, you are allowed to disappoint others without having to justify yourself: “Right now, this is how I feel” or “Right now, this is what I intend to do (or not do).” When it comes to defending your integrity, you’re even allowed to be somewhat hesitant or unsure: “I’m not sure what it is, but something does not seem right.” So don’t apologize for your “No.” Remember, it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Boldly embrace the “Basic Law of Safe Stress”: Do know your limits and don’t limit your “No”s!

Closing Summary

Learning to say “No” is vital for surviving and thriving in today’s always on, ever demanding, work-life boundary busting world. While “Just Say ‘No'” has become a pat phrase (not unlike “Have a Good Day”) putting this affirmative concept into action frequently becomes a thorny if not daunting challenge. Here is the first five “N & N” Tools and Techniques for Saying “No” (and Meaning It):

1. Clean Up Your Static to Give a Clear Message
2. Be Empathic yet Firm
3. Use Relevant Facts and Place Issue in Context
4. Use Assertive “I”s Not Blaming “You”s
5. Don’t Belabor an Apology

Part III will close out the “N & N Top Ten” and provide some “lagniappe” (a little extra as we’d say in N’Awlins) – tips for even setting some limits on the “Big Honcho.” Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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