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Is it easy for you to say?

Two letters, one empowering word. Saying it can be tough, but here are some tips on when and how to say no.

Why is one of the first words you’re able to say as a baby one of the hardest words to say as an adult?

Babbling toddlers assert themselves readily with an emphatic “no” to send you a clear message about their desires. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, though, things become more complicated, and we lose our ability to speak our minds so freely.

Why did I agree to that?

Yes or no. It sounds simple on the surface but in reality, many factors influence how we respond to a request or invitation. Most of the time, our decisions are not black and white.

According to Susan Newman, Ph.D., Psychology Today blogger and author of The Book of NO, there are myriad reasons we might say yes to a request when we really want to say no. For many people, the reason is clear. “Since we were children, we’ve had ‘no’ drummed out of us. We were trying to please our parents, and that stuck,” says Newman.

Others say yes for approval. “People want to be liked. They want to be loved,” she explains. “They are afraid if they say no that people will think they are self-centered, lazy, selfish—and most importantly—uncaring.”

Nanette Gartrell, M.D., author of My Answer Is NO—If That’s Okay with You, adds another viewpoint. After decades of working with people on this topic, she has realized there are more positive reasons for laboring to say no, too.

“We struggle to find the right balance between saying yes and no because typically, we care very much about the other [person],” she observes. “It’s compassion, empathy and all of these wonderful, positive qualities that make it difficult to say no when we are asked to do things at a time that doesn’t work for us.”

Paying the price

But overextending ourselves—whatever the reasons may be—can take its toll on our health, relationships and careers. The stress of over-commitment can cause anxiety that may lead to high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, poor eating habits and exhaustion. All of these factors can make you more susceptible to illness, according to Gartrell, who also is a Williams Institute Visiting Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

In your personal life, say, when your mother-in-law demands your presence on Christmas morning or your best friend wants you to take Mandarin classes with her, begrudgingly giving away your time can have consequences. When you agree to do something you don’t want to do, “you’re upset with yourself and resentful of the person who asked,” says Newman. Over time, this creates an unhealthy dynamic within your relationships and you end up feeling taken advantage of or used.

At work, saying yes when you don’t have capacity to fulfill your commitment can damage your standing in your organization. “When you take on too much, you jeopardize your own effectiveness and risk making errors that could hurt you in the long run,” Newman says.

Stretching yourself too thin is a bad idea. “It’s very important that everyone learn to have boundaries and set limits because it’s critical to our overall well-being,” says Gartrell.

“People want to be liked. They want to be loved. They are afraid if they say no that people will think they are self-centered, lazy, selfish—and most importantly—uncaring." – Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of NO

Weighing your options

Instead of automatically answering yes when someone asks something of you, experts recommend you take time to evaluate how the request measures against your priorities. First, Gartrell suggests telling the other party you need some time to think about it. “Tell them you’ll get back to them within a set period of time,” she says.

Then, Newman advises asking yourself if you have time to fulfill the request, and the consequences of saying yes. Will you feel pressured to get it done? Will you be upset with yourself if you say yes? Will you resent the other person, and will you feel taken advantage of if you comply? The last two questions may be the most important, though: “Ask yourself, ‘What do I have to give up to do this, and what can I gain?’” she explains.

Taking an honest look at your feelings should give you clear direction about how to proceed.

Empowering yourself with two little letters

If you want to say yes, accept the request. But if all signs point to no, sometimes it can become complicated. Although you may have no desire to pick your neighbors up from the airport at midnight, your fondness for them may make it difficult to turn them down.

Soften the blow by offering an alternative solution. When you tell your neighbors an early morning meeting prevents you from picking them up at the airport the night before, offer to send them the number of your trusty taxi driver to pick them up in your place.

Gartrell suggests keeping your answer brief but kind. “Be as nice as you can be because, after all, you wouldn’t have been asked in the first place if somebody didn’t think you had something to offer,” she notes. Some people simply can’t take no for an answer, though. If you’ve tried to politely decline and the person persists with the request, shooting down your excuses, it’s time to be firm. “When people push when you have said no, they are not respecting your limits,” says Gartrell. Briefly and clearly tell them that no is your final answer and you will not discuss the matter further.

Of course, you may not always have the luxury to say no to a request at work. If your plate is too full to accept an assignment, sit down with your boss and explain your position. “List what you have to do and ask to have your priorities shuffled,” Newman says. This gives your boss the opportunity to clear your schedule for the new assignment or give it to someone else with fewer projects.

Many of us feel guilty when we say no, but Newman says most people making a request simply move on to the next person on the list. “People are not worrying about you as much as you think they are,” she reassures.

The upside of no

Taking control of how you spend your time can benefit you in a number of ways. You free up hours for yourself that you can fill however you like, “without feeling frenzied and always out of control,” says Newman.

Saying no to a pleading friend, a strong-willed relative or a harried colleague can be difficult, but it can be a sign of strength. “People who can say no have their boundaries in place and know what they can handle,” she adds.

Gartrell agrees. “You have to learn to say no to things that are not at the top of your priority list so you can say yes to the things that matter to you.”