When I was younger, I had a well- deserved reputation for being a people-pleaser. I’d avoid conflict by saying yes more often than I should have, and I’d dance around difficult conversations. It was part of my wanting to be liked, of course, but my parents also taught my brothers and me to be respectful—a lesson I wholeheartedly embraced because it made me feel comfortable.
If this sounds like you or someone you know, you’re not alone. There are countless self-help books available dedicated to teaching people how to stand up for themselves. Their proliferation points to an unfortunate fact of life: being unwilling to push back, adults and kids are taking on more responsibilities, trying to get more done every day, and feeling more stress than ever.
And the cracks are showing in their well-being. But there’s hope and a solution. Of utmost importance is knowing when it’s perfectly reasonable, if not necessary, to say no or to start a difficult conversation, having the confidence to say what you should, and doing it correctly.
The No Way
To avoid eternally being a yes-man (or yes-woman), the key is to be respectful yet show resolve. For example, if you’re asked to take on another assignment on top of your already bursting-at-the-seams workload in the office, instead of saying no or gritting your teeth and saying yes, a better response would be a firm, polite “Thanks. I’d love to help, but I can’t right now.”
Notice the words that should stick during the conversation: “thanks” (appreciation) “love” (eagerness) and “help” (teamwork), which will make a positive out of a potential negative for both parties. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan—if need be, you could also ask for help reshuffling your workload priorities, which shows your flexibility in getting the job done.
This type of response would work for your personal life as well. Have you ever been stuck in this situation? On Friday night, a friend asks if you want to hit the town and you have no other plans—but you’re so tired after the week you’ve had.
Ever reliable, you could say yes and pay for it later when you sleep the weekend away. You could also lie and say you have other plans. But the best option would be to honestly reply, “Thanks. I’d love to, but I can’t tonight. I’m exhausted.” and then suggest a different night. If she’s really a friend, she might be disappointed, but she’ll understand.
Advice for asserting yourself
Here are some other ways you can stand up for yourself, whether you’re responding to a request or starting a difficult conversation.
Think instead of react.
Your reflexive response might be to say yes, which you may soon regret. Or you might say no without being prepared to give a valid reason why. If the request is via email or text, take advantage of the time to think your answer through. That being said…
Don’t put it off.
You know you’re still a people-pleaser at heart, so not responding to a request or initiating a tough talk might allow you to avoid conflict, overthink the situation, and possibly talk yourself out of it. Choose whatever saying you like: Strike while the iron’s hot. There’s no better time than the present. Just do it. They’re all sage advice.
Talk face to face.
Admittedly, this may be the biggest elephant in the room for people who want to avoid conflict. But whether it’s a difficult discussion about job or home workloads or bad news, it’s better to look someone in the eye, which can lead to a discussion and better understanding for both parties involved.
Be confident, straightforward, and empathetic.
You have a side to your story, so say what you mean and explain it—you have a right to do so. Perhaps you won’t be able to do your best work under the circumstances. Or maybe you’ll be such a downer, you’ll ruin the night out for you and your friend. Or if you’re not happy living at home, it can make everyone unhappy. Such empathy will likely strike a chord in the conversation, as you’ll clearly show that you’re looking out for the other person as much as yourself.
Anticipate the best, but be ready for pushback.
If you go into the conversation expecting the worst, it will likely make you a bit defensive. What you have to say is abundantly reasonable, so anticipate a positive outcome. That said, you should also be realistic. If you know that the person’s not the type to take no for an answer, don’t get frustrated or flustered when it happens. Be ready to respond firmly but politely in kind.
If you’ve become a conflict-avoiding legend, you may want to consider relinquishing your title. The benefits of having difficult conversations, including saying no to others, usually far outweigh the downsides. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you may wish to do just about anything else. Yes, you may be afraid of making an awkward situation worse. Yes, it may be tough on the people receiving it.
And, the truth is, you may not come to an agreement. But that’s not really the point. When you welcome such conversations, you’re embracing the validity of your own voice and your own strength. You’re basking in the mutual benefit that comes from the conversation, even if it’s just being able to talk about it. Oftentimes, the ice just needs to be broken—and if you don’t allow that to happen, the only person you’re hurting is you.