Learning to say “no” sounds like a simple behavioural change. People commonly expect their partner to respond to requests fairly soon after they’re made. What my clients often do not realise is that some of their requests are not simple for their partners to do.
What they think is a behavioural change, may actually be a developmental one. This means that they may not have developed the skills required to accomplish what is being asked nor learnt to set boundaries.
For example, during a couples counselling session, one woman asked her husband to express his emotions more openly to her. It was easy for her to express emotions and she wanted her partner to be able to reciprocate in kind. When she made this request of him he answered “OK, I’ll do that”, expressing his genuine desire to do so.
In the process of inquiring about what had got in the way of him doing this before, we discovered that he’d never learnt to tune into himself to know what he was actually feeling. So despite wanting to express his emotions for the sake of improving their relationship, he had not yet developed this skill. On the other hand his wife had not realized that he was not aware of his internal states in the way she was, so she had not developed the capacity to accept that they were fundamentally different in this relationship skill.
In this session we also discovered that he often agreed to do tasks even though he knew he didn’t have the time or the energy to carry through on his promises. This pattern, again coming from a desire to please, and a more hidden desire to avoid a conflict, had over the years created tension in their relationship. With tasks being left undone he continually felt guilty and inadequate. In turn, she felt burdened by having to do the majority of household tasks and resentful because she was “turned into a nag”.
Both of them struggled to say “no” and set their boundaries. This is hard to do, especially when we’re under pressure, feeling stressed or tired and particularly after many years of unresolved conflict.
Four Tips for learning to say “no” appropriately:
1. Recognize that the desire to please often underlies an inability to say “no”.
In his case he didn’t say “no” because he wanted to please her but lacked emotional awareness of his own inner processes, and the time and energy to do the tasks when she asked him to. And in her case she couldn’t say “no” because she wanted to please him by managing the household and the kids.
But she also didn’t know how to ask in a clean and non-demanding way for an appropriate time to have a “feelings focused” discussion with him about her emotional desires or a “problem solving” discussion about household tasks. Her “solution” was to do all the tasks resentfully and to nag him when she felt overwhelmed.
When we say “yes” we’re often looking to get someone’s approval. We could learn instead to clearly state whether we can or cannot do something that’s asked of us. The first step in changing this “people pleasing” pattern is acknowledging that we’re doing it.
2. Make a commitment to change.
Learning any new skill takes time and practice. Commit to learning how to say “no”. It is a process that will take time and practice.
3. Do a mini assessment.
As yourself questions like: Where am I specifically saying “yes” when I need to say “no”. What do I need to say a complete “no” to and what do I need to say “no for now” to, and negotiate a more suitable time when I’ll be able to do it?
4. Pick one of those things to which you need to say a complete “no” and practice with that one.
Saying “no for now” might translate to: “I can’t do it right now, but can get to it tomorrow”. Then make sure you follow through on this commitment.
Practicing this persistently will strengthen your ability to say “no” and to set a clear boundary. Saying “no” isn’t easy if you’re used to saying “yes” all the time. But learning to say “no” is an important part of simplifying your life, reducing your stress and earning trust because you follow through by doing what you say when you say you will. With practice, you’ll find saying “no” becomes easier.
If not being able to say “no” is causing problems in your relationship, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 10 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.