Q: I’ve always had difficulty saying no, and as a result everyone now expects me to give an automatic yes to some unfair asks. It doesn’t matter whether I’m being asked to run the Birthday Brigade for the third year in a row, or to take full responsibility for creating the slides for a presentation someone else is giving, or to come up with plans for an intern who another teacher isn’t properly mentoring. In the school setting, there’s also this idea that we should say yes to anything that’s “good for kids.” It’s exhausting, but the one or two times I steeled myself and actually said no, I was met with so much hostility that I backtracked. Intellectually, I knew I was well within my rights, but I felt soooo guilty that I changed my answer. Can you help me say no in the face of tremendous pressure to say yes, and do you have any words of wisdom for dealing with the fallout, including my own guilt?
A: In schools and organizations in general, people end up assuming roles. It sounds like you have a reputation for being easygoing, responsible, people-pleasing, generous with your time, and willing to take on tasks others avoid. There are clearly positives to this identity, which is why you’re struggling to say no. I’m not surprised you’re exhausted, but change is hard. You have to let go of the need to be liked and agreeable at all times, and that requires a game plan. You also need to pat yourself on the back for incremental progress. You’re not going to change radically overnight, and you’d probably find that too jarring anyway.
Start by simply getting in the habit of pausing before responding. It’s OK to say, “I need to think about it. Can I get back to you?” It might be hard to begin with a hard no, but at least give yourself a chance to think about what you want to do. As soon as you know you’d like to decline a request, practice using the word no or an equivalent phrase. There are so many variations, from “I can’t take that on right now” to “I’m going to have to pass.” If you need to soften the exchange, you can thank them for thinking of you, or tell them you wish you could help, but it’s best to be straightforward and get to the point as quickly as possible. You don’t want to waffle or seem ambivalent. You may feel tempted to offer a justification or rationale, but there’s no need. People who try to guilt-trip you are manipulative, and their behavior reveals more about them than you.
You may find you have an easier time saying no in writing. I recognize myself in your question, and I’ve learned to run responses by more assertive colleagues. They’ve taught me how to communicate a definitive “I won’t” rather than “I can’t,” which leaves room for negotiation. I once showed my principal an email from someone asking me to take over a botched project for them. I wasn’t invested in the work, I was in a time crunch myself, and this was a problem of their making, but I still had a hard time saying no. I drafted a rambling reply that said something like, “I feel really bad that I can’t do this for you, but it’s just too much for me right now because I have x, y, and z on my plate, and as much as I want to help you, I’m feeling kind of overwhelmed.” It was a no, but it was so cushioned by niceties it was essentially buried. My principal — who knows that saying no can be challenging for me — convinced me to shorten the note to one phrase: “I’m sorry, that won’t work for me.” I felt irrationally guilty for several hours, but then the feeling lifted. It’s empowering to feel in control of your decisions. Others’ needs don’t trump your own. You get to decide when and for whom you’d like to make sacrifices.
If you continue to struggle, consider what you’d give up by saying yes. Your time is valuable. People who say yes to everything accomplish less. That said, if you want to teach people to respect your boundaries, you have to start by respecting them yourself.
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