When I was twenty-one I lived for a few months in Tokyo, Japan, in one of fifty plywood cubicles in a plywood apartment block. The other cubicles were occupied by Japanese recluses and foreign backpackers. Suspended from a tree in the courtyard was a bucket, with holes drilled into its base. A hose ran into the bucket. That was the block’s only shower. (Thankfully, there was a bathhouse ten minutes walk away.)
When the block wasn’t a fire-trap it was wet. I told my geriatric landlord that when it rained, water dripped into my room. He wandered off and came back shortly with a bucket, and then told me to put it in the ceiling to catch the water coming from the roof. I did so. I found nine buckets full of water already up there.
But I digress.
While I was working as a movie extra in Tokyo, to earn enough money to leave Japan, I met a Japanese woman who took a liking to me. She invited me to a Kabuki play, which is stylised drama and dance, and expensive. Being a cultural desert I had no interest, but she seemed keen on the idea and I didn’t want to offend her, so I said yes. We agreed on which night to go.
The next day she told me she had bought the tickets and was looking forward to it. My foggy mind didn’t fully comprehend the situation, and even though I had no intention of going I feebly smiled and said yes. After all, I couldn’t offend her by saying no, could I?
On the night I was to meet her I made sure I wasn’t around. That seemed a good way to tell her I wasn’t interested. By not telling her face-to-face we could both avoid embarrassment. Brilliant, hey?
I cringe to think of it.
She visited a few days later, wanting an explanation or an apology – I can’t remember which. My response would have been just as fog-headed, and I didn’t see her again.
On that day I discovered the importance of saying ‘no’ , and have never again treated another human being so shabbily.
When a child says ‘no’ to a parent the parent feels uncomfortable, because their authority and patience are being tested. The parent reacts and the child discovers that saying ‘no’ leads to conflict and tears.
If, over time, the parent wins most of the disagreements the child becomes relatively obedient and conscientious. If it’s the child who wins the disagreements the child can become feral.
The feral child has no problem saying ‘no’, but loses the ability to be self-disciplined. The obedient child learns self-discipline, but loses the ability to say ‘no’. (A generalisation, I admit.)
When that obedient child becomes an adult they may retain the strong belief that it is wrong to say ‘no’. Many of us feel we are being uncooperative and impolite when we say ‘no’.
I feel uncomfortable saying no. It is an effort for me to say the word. But I manage it, because it has to be done. I don’t want to be that young man in Japan again. I want to be a responsible human being. I say ‘no’ for the benefit of the other person, and for me.
All of us need to have the ability to say ‘no’ when ‘no’ is the word we want to use.
I significantly inconvenienced that kind Japanese woman. I let her down, because I couldn’t be upfront and say ‘no’ to her. I lost her respect, and dinted my self-respect. In that instance, my refusal to decline her invitation inconvenienced her more than it did me. There are times when our inability to say ‘no’ significantly inconveniences us.
When someone makes a request of us it can be a good thing to put our own needs aside to help them. But we need to have the capacity to say ‘no’. If we feel compelled to help out, then we are not choosing to assist because there is no choice about it – it’s a ‘no contest’ – we have given ourselves no choice. However, if we are capable of saying ‘no’ it becomes a fair encounter. Then, when we do choose to put our own needs aside, it’s our decision. Guilt hasn’t won out. We haven’t succumbed to the pressure. Instead, we have agreed to do it on our terms. And, because it’s a fair decision, we won’t feel resentment, we won’t feel weak, and we won’t feel awful. We retain our inner authority.
Q. ‘It’s difficult to say no. Some people get hostile.’
It might be because you are not meeting their needs. They might want their needs met and don’t care about your needs. Your refusal to comply with their request is an inconvenience for them. If that’s the case, resist the pressure and stick up for yourself.
That said, if you refuse to meet clear and fair obligations (refuse to fulfil a fair promise, for example) their hostility is understandable (but hopefully constructively expressed).
Q. ‘By saying ‘no’ I am concerned I might hurt someone’s feelings.’
The other person might feel hurt, but if you are being fair and reasonable, the other person has to take responsibility for how they feel.
Besides, if the other person feels hurt it means they are focusing on how disadvantaged they feel, rather than on why you are having to act assertively.
The idea of being assertive is to effect a positive change, so to comply with a request for fear of hurting someone would be to betray yourself and your aims.
Further, although the person might feel hurt, they might also appreciate your straightforwardness. People aren’t as fragile as you might think.
You can soothe the other person. Let them know you care about their feelings: ‘I can see you’re upset, and I can understand why. It would be a distressing situation to be in and I genuinely feel for you. However, no, I won’t . . . ’
Steps we can take to say ‘No’.
1. First, pause. This gives us time to collect our thoughts and remember what to do next.
2. Keep our response short, by smiling and saying ‘No’, or ‘No, thank you’, or ‘I decline’. Remember, we are not obliged to give a reason.
Be kind with your refusal. Avoid being aggressive. Don’t say, ‘Which part of ‘no’ don’t you understand.’ Assertiveness is about respecting yourself and the other person.
Avoid the wimpy phrases like:
‘No, I don’t think I can.’
‘I’m not sure I will.’
3. Afterwards, congratulate yourself.
Avoid being manipulated into saying ‘yes’.
Here are three tips from David J. Lieberman’s book, ‘Never be lied to again’:
‘Ever wonder why religious groups offer a flower or some other gift in the airport? They know that most people will feel compelled to give them a small donation. We know we don’t have to, but we can become uncomfortable, even though we didn’t ask for the gift in the first place.
When someone gives us something we feel indebted to him. When you are presented with a request, make sure that you’re not acting out of a sense of obligation. This rule can take many forms, it’s not limited to gifts. You could be offered information, a concession, or even someone’s time. Don’t think that sales people don’t know that if they invest a lot of time with you, showing you a product, demonstrating how it works, you will feel somewhat obligated to buy it, even if you’re not sure that you really want it. The key is to decide what’s right, independent of the other person’s interest in your decision.’
From David J. Lieberman’s book, ‘Never be lied to again.’
From Page 198.
‘By agreeing to the small requests, you justify your behaviour by realigning your thinking as follows: “I must really care about this person or I wouldn’t be helping him” and ‘I must really care about this cause or I wouldn’t be doing any of this. To avoid others using this rule on you, beware if you are asked to commit to something even in a small way. This request is usually followed by a slightly greater request, and over time your sense of commitment is built up to the point where you feel locked into your decision. When you make decision, notice if your best interests are being served or if you’re simply trying to “make right” a previous behaviour.’
From David J. Lieberman’s book, ‘Never be lied to Again.’
And, on page 203:
‘If you’re asked to do a large favour for someone only to decline his request for help, beware. A smaller favour, the one he really wants you to do, may follow. We are more likely to agree to a smaller request if we’re first presented with a larger one. In contrast to the first request, the smaller one is no big deal. You feel bad for not coming through on his original favour, and this seems like a fair compromise. . . . You don’t want to be perceived as unreasonable. Refusing the large request is one thing. And this small favour is not going to kill you.
David J. Lieberman, ‘Never be Lied to Again’.