The #1 Enemy of Success is the Inability to Say “NO”

Success Principle #1: Learning to Say No When you Mean NO!

Have you ever agreed to something and then almost immediately regretted it, but you did nothing and said nothing because you’d already said yes? Have you ever said yes to doing a friend a favor or accepted that volunteer job at your local church and then fretted all night about how to get out of it without looking like a total jerk?

When we’re asked to do a job, we’re like this…

But once the impact of it sinks in, we’re more like this…

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Let’s admit it — we’re all yes-men and yes-women to a great degree.

Sure, we’re pretty comfortable declining requests from acquaintances and strangers. “No, I’d rather not”, “No, thank you”, “I don’t need one right now”, “I think I’ll pass”, “I’ll take a rain check”, “That’s not for me” — these are all socially acceptable ways to say no without sounding rude. The problem is, that only tends to work when the other person immediately backs off. If they persist and insist, most of us just can’t resist. We say yes and then we moan and groan about how pushy and bossy they were.

For the majority of us, even if we fully intend to stand our ground, the “no” that arises in our brain somehow trips over our vocal cords and magically transforms itself into a feeble “Okay, I’ll do it” by the time it comes out of our pathetic little pieholes!

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

Don’t tell me that’s never happened to you. All of us have a “buckling point” where we give in, don’t we? Not all of us, of course, just 99 out of 100 of us. You’re the one who never ever caves. This article is for me and 98 other spineless chumps who keep saying yes to whatever comes our way — and hate each moment of it. You’re in the clear.

That brings us to why we, the gullible 99, are unable to say no and stick to our guns.

Why is Saying “NO” So Hard?

There are many theories to explain our reticence when it comes to rejecting a request, but the one that’s most plausible is that we don’t like conflict. Deep down, we’re a very timid species that typically chooses flight over fight unless it’s something we care about. Then we become truly aggressive — among the most aggressive of creatures, in fact. But, for the most part, we like staying ‘in-sync’ with society at large.

Sometimes, it’s hard to say no because of the deep-seated need to be socially accepted

“I told my pastor I’d bake 200 cookies for the fundraiser. God, what have I gotten myself into?!”

“All my friends are doing it, mom!”

“How did I get suckered into chaperoning at the Fall Dance?”

Sound familiar?

At other times, it’s because we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. Closely related to that is our not wanting to feel guilty for saying no to a request or a favor. In some other cases, it might be our own fear of rejection that prevents us from rejecting the requests and demands of others.

It comes in so many forms that it can be overwhelming — peer pressure, wanting to belong, not wanting to be excluded, not wanting to be the ‘odd one out’, not wanting to be criticized or made to feel guilty, not wanting to displease or anger others… you get the point, right?

The reality is that “socially accepted behavior” dictates that we never put our needs before those of others. From the time we’re toddlers, we’re constantly told that our feelings don’t matter, that ‘the greater good’ is more important than our own feelings of well-being, and that our priorities must always be put last.

“It’s Jim and me, sweetheart, not me and Jim. Put yourself last, honey.”

The moment we put ourselves first, we’re tagged as selfish snobs or uppity stuck-ups — or just plain old vanilla jerks.

Do you see the problem here? From the moment you could understand the spoken word, you’ve been programmed to put the needs of someone else above your own: “He’s your baby brother, don’t be selfish, give it to him.”, “ Listen to her, she’s your older sister”, and so on and so forth. You just can’t seem to get the upper hand.

In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it teaches us about sharing, sensitivity, respect, and all that good stuff. But it becomes a vile and vicious thing when you make a habit of indiscriminately handing out your time and energy — or giving up your desires — to everyone who asks for it.

And if you do that every time, you’ll eventually lose the ability to stand up for yourself. In the long run, you will not be able to meet any of your personal goals because you’ll be too busy satisfying the whims of others.

Am I touching a raw nerve here? I certainly hope so because if you’re angry with me for saying this, you should be. Your anger is appropriate, but it is grossly misdirected.

What you’re really angry at is the fact that you’re not able to put your needs above the needs of others. And that pisses you off. Good. It should. Read on.

You only need to see how ‘average’ people react to ‘successful’ people to see that this is true. We have all, at some point, either said or heard said that “Oh, he’s a go-getter”, or “She’s no pushover”, and those comments are usually tinged with more than a little jealousy.

Where does that kind of thinking come from? It comes from the fact that we’re envious of their ability to focus on their priorities over every other consideration. “Greater good Schmater good!” That’s the way they think.

If you think that’s a selfish way to live your life, it is further proof that you’re steeped in society’s powerful hypnotic suggestions that you’re less important than everyone else.

What Really Matters Is You

The bigger picture here is your ability to choose a path and stick to it until you reach your goal. And the biggest enemy of that endeavor is the loss of focus. I challenge you to think about that for a second — what is the one thing that takes your focus away from the goals you’ve set in life? Distractions, right? And that’s basically what saying yes to someone means — you’re putting off an important personal goal in favor of a goal that someone else has.

Now comes the dangerous part, and I urge you to read this sentence more than once to make sure you understand its implications:

“Your inability to say no to people will eventually lead to an inability to say no to a thousand other things that aren’t aligned with your goals.”

Please read that again, I beg you.

It’s so vital to your future success that I’ll paraphrase it:

If you can’t say no to another person’s request or demand even though it affects your own personal goals in a negative way, you will ultimately not be able to say no to the endless string of things, events, and circumstances in your life that distract you from achieving those goals.”

But here’s the silver lining, the escape hatch, the life-preserver…

Fortunately, the flip side of that is equally true and just as powerful, which is: when you start saying no to people when their requests conflict with the achievement of your own personal goals, it will be easier to say no to the many other things that distract you and make you lose focus.

We already have a great many distractions in our lives that prevent us from working towards and achieving our dreams. It’s called life; it’s called kids; it’s called social media; it’s called going out with your friends; it’s called Netflix.

But if you let “life” get in the way of your dreams, your destiny will never be truly in your control. It will always belong to the first shiny thing that comes along and the first person to steal your time from you.

Saying “yes” when your gut wants to scream “NO” is one of the most self-destructive types of behavior there is because it eventually becomes so ‘second-nature’ that you don’t even realize that you’re destroying your future and your dreams.

The Practical Side: How to Say No and Stick With It

So, how do we go about reversing this process and curing this ‘disease’ that afflicts 99% of the population?

Well, understanding the solution is easy — we just look at the 1% that has overcome it!

If you look at any person who has achieved considerable success in any field, the first thing you’ll notice about them is their commitment to their goals and objectives. Goal-setting is not just a hypothetical nicety for them; it is their religion. And the byproduct of that firm commitment to crossing the multiple finish lines they’ve set for themselves is their ability to respond with a decisive “no” when a request doesn’t fit into their scheme of things.

Think about it.

People who say “yes” without considering how it will affect their own schedules will usually have a set of phrases that they throw around, such as

“sure, no problem”, “yup, I’ll take care of it”, “no sweat”, “I’m here for you”, etc.

Similarly, those who have become comfortable saying “no” to others also have their repertoire of phrases, such as

“sorry, it doesn’t fit my schedule”, “no, I can’t take that on right now”, or even a simple “no, that won’t be possible.”

Let’s look at what we can learn from these simple differences in response because that is our lifeline at this point.

Lesson #1 — Be Decisive and Brief When Saying No

Notice that the delivery of that phrase is a key aspect to consider. It is usually said in a manner that clearly denotes finality — as if it’s not up for negotiation.

If pushed to agree despite this clear message, they simply reiterate what they’ve already said and just move on. That’s the cue for the other person to cease and desist, or risk receiving a more terse and probably rude reply. The wording might vary but the message is crystal-clear:

“No, and I don’t appreciate being asked again.”

On the other hand, those of us that are afraid or hesitant to say “no” will tend to elongate our response —

“no, I don’t think that’s possible for me right now because, you know, I’ve got…”, or

“sorry, I think I’m going to have to say no to that for now because…”, or

“I’m not sure I have the time to do that right now. I actually have that thing coming up…”

If you’ll notice, none of these are definitive because they contain phrases like “I don’t think”, “I think”, “I’m not sure”, “right now”, etc. These phrases act like cues for the other person to keep pushing. It prompts them to sell harder with responses like “I simply can’t manage without you” or “I’d be so grateful if you could do this for me.” They know you’re about to buckle so they’re piling on the pressure and the guilt. They want you to feel so bad that you ultimately — once again — emit that dreaded “Okay, I’ll do it” from your… yup, that same piehole!

And this is the person you’re worried about offending??

Lesson #2: Give Yourself Time to Prepare and Deliver Your “No” Response

Another thing you might see successful people do is to take a moment to decide — as if they’ll mulling it over — and then deliver the “no” with a finality that can’t be disputed.

If you’d rather not give them a straight “no”, it’s okay to say, “Give me a second to think about it.” Take a few seconds to muster up some courage, and then come back with a strong “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.”

That gives them the impression that you did consider it but decided against it. If they persist, reiterate that with something like “No, it really doesn’t make sense for me to do it. Hey, how about that Dodgers game last night, huh?”

The second part of that last sentence is just a suggestion, but ‘deflection’ is a good way to communicate very clearly that you consider the topic closed. You can leave that out if you think it’ll sound unnatural or too obvious, but it’s quite effective.

Lesson #3 — Do Not Explain Yourself. Or Fall Back on One of Three Time-tested Responses

We spoke about elongated responses that send the message that you’re open to being pushed harder. One of the ways we open ourselves to being accosted even more aggressively is by offering excuses and reasons. Don’t do that. Why would you need to give a reason for saying no? Are they asking you for one? Probably not.

In fact, most of the time, it’s just our own guilt that forces us to give them an explanation; it also helps redirect the tension to something else — the kids, your job, your elderly parents, etc. It’s just something to draw attention away from what you think is an awkward moment about to present itself. You have to shake that off because it’s simply not true. If anything, they’re the ones who should feel awkward for putting you on the spot.

But if they are clearly pushing for a reason, you can use one of three techniques to cut the explanation short:

Time — This is the least aggressive response for when you’re asked why you can’t do something. It takes the syntax: “I’m terribly busy”, “My schedule won’t allow it”, “I really don’t have the time”, and so on.

Interest — This is a little more aggressive — or so it would seem to the other person. It’s actually not. It’s a technique that asserts your individuality and your preferences; more specifically, the things you’d prefer to NOT do. It takes the form of “I’m not into that”, “Not my thing”, and so on.

It’s Personal… or Just Because — If the push is aggressive, respond with an equally aggressive “It’s personal.” Not many people are so socially inept that they’ll push beyond that point. Your family, maybe, but definitely not people in your social, casual, or professional circles. With your family and close friends, it’s probably easier to just say “Just because” and leave it at that.

Lesson #4 — Set Personal Goals and Go After Them

This is the final lesson but it should actually be the very first one. This whole problem of not being able to say “no” in a decisive manner arises from the fact that very few of us actually have a plan for our lives.

If you don’t believe me, test yourself with this — just try to answer the question: “Where do you see yourself in two years in terms of your finances and your career?” The harder it is to envision that future, the clearer it should be to you that you need some goals in your life.

Care for another test? Just ask yourself “What are you doing this weekend?” If you find yourself wide open, you’re inviting others to come and peck away at your free time as they will.

On the other hand, if you have specific goals and specific action items that will take you closer to those goals over time, you won’t have all that free space on your calendar. Keeping yourself busy — but busy working toward clear goals, not just busy watching TV or hanging out with friends — is the best way to prevent others from infringing on your time.

How Do Goals Help Us Say “NO” and Stick To It?

Goals have schedules; schedules have action items; and action items are set to a timeline and recorded on either a physical, digital, or mental calendar — or a To-Do list.

Ergo, if your calendar or list is full of things that will help you reach your goal, it will be easier to say “no” because you really won’t have the time for frivolous “extras.”

Makes sense, right?

Another aspect of this: active goals collectively act as a compass to help us steer unswervingly to our destination. Constantly reminding ourselves of those goals is like correcting our course whenever we start to go astray.

Analogy: If the captain of a ship needs a chart to navigate treacherous waters, she keeps that chart in front of her until she has crossed over to the other side, continually checking the ship’s position against it to see if her bearing is accurate.

Goals also act as a barrier to distractions, whether that’s in the form of binge-watching a Netflix series or helping your brother-in-law with his birdhouse project.

Let’s Summarize What We’ve Learned

Here are the salient points of what we’ve discussed thus far. These bullet points are all you need to remember and take away from this dialog we’ve just had.

  • Most of us tend to say “yes” when we actually want to say “no”
  • Some of us begin with a soft “no”, only to give in under pressure
  • A very small percentage of us is able to say “no” and stick with it
  • We give in for a variety of reasons — wanting to be accepting, not wanting to offend, wanting to be “part of the team”, and so on
  • Most of all, the so-called ‘virtue’ of putting ourselves last has been drummed into us from early childhood
  • If you succumb to pressure from people, you will eventually give in to pressure from everything; in other words, “life”
  • Reverse this way of thinking using four lessons:

1. Say “no” in a decisive manner

2. Take a moment and come back with a forceful “no”

3. Do not offer a reason — or use time, interest, or “It’s personal” as your reason

4. Set goals to fill your life so you can say “no” as a matter of course

The very reason you are unable to deliver a forceful “no” is that you really don’t have a reason to say “no”. And that’s because you have no plan. Get a reason by getting some goals and setting a plan of action, and then go after them as if your life depended on it.

Because it does.

Shudeep is a versatile writer covering a wide range of topics from personal development to stock market analysis, technology, business, and more.

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