Monday, November 1, 2010

How to say "No" graciously

How hard is it to say "no" to your boss or supervisor?

No matter how overloaded you may be, often the automatic "yes" kicks in, often while our brain shrieks at us "say NO for goodness sake, please SAY NO".

Those of us who regularly find ourselves getting overloaded, may have fallen into the habit of agreeing to all and sundry requests, even if they go against our better instincts for self preservation. Sometimes however, the perceived power imbalance between us and the boss is such that we feel pressured into agreeing - it's a subtle kind of bullying, and can have some negative long term ramifications. (but that's another blog entirely)

This particular post is more for those times when we kick ourselves after agreeing - when there was a choice, if only we'd been able to just stop our mouth opening and the 'yes' sneaking out.

One client found herself habitually saying 'yes' to any request her boss put to her, even if it meant missing both morning tea and lunch breaks, and working unpaid overtime and consistent 'graveyard' shifts. Her health was clearly suffering and she was burnt out and miserable by the time she came to me. It had got to the stage where her boss had come to rely on her compliance and the situation needed a bit of a shakeup.

Firstly, stop and think. That's all. It sounds very simple, but you might find just this step a bit of a challenge at first. Try it even though it may go against the grain, it's extremely empowering.

What you're doing is breaking what may be a lifetime habit of being the 'nice person'. After all, it's good to feel needed, and being asked to do things can also make us feel important (and there's nothing at all wrong with that - in moderation).  In addition, many of us have grown up in cultures that encourage us to put our own needs down, possibly to keep the peace in our family, for religious reasons, and sometimes because one gender is seen to be more powerful (and deserving) than the other.

So, don't be hard on yourself if it's tough simply to pause before agreeing, you could be beginning to break a lifetime habit just by pausing and thinking.

Secondly, ask a few questions. Is it urgent that you drop everything to, for instance, see this client immediately? Will the world fall apart if you finish your sandwich? Does the patient need urgent assistance that only you can provide? Who else is on the scene who could assist?

Sometimes it's appropriate to even ask "Can I get back to you about that tomorrow morning?" or something similar.


But please remember, this isn't a 'one size fits all' suggestion, and needs to be a suitable, thoughtful and respectful response for your personal situation.

Some bosses have developed the knack of promoting even the slightest mishap into a drama of world proportions. I worked with a manager like this some years ago, and the department was in a constant state of nervous anticipation waiting for the next 'catastrophe' to fall. It was draining, and led to increased staff  'mental health day' breaks simply to counteract the emotional exhaustion of dealing with the unreasonable and unnecessary demand for immediate action. Need I say, we generally weren't dealing with life and death situations, but routine, predictable everyday events.

By asking a couple of questions, your boss will quickly see that the pattern is changing. In the best scenarios, this leads to an increased level of professionalism and mutual respect. Interestingly, my clients who've begun using this technique state that their view of themselves begins to change from being a bit of a pushover to more confident and assured. Workplaces haven't fallen into anarchy, and in fact, the workplace tone has often improved.

Thirdly, if the request is reasonable, of course you'll agree graciously. You may choose to drop what you're doing and rush to fulfil the request. In the process however, you'll have regained a sense of self confident control; and a pattern that may have outlived its usefulness will begin to crumble.

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