After reading my last post – The 7 Biggest Mistakes People Make When They Say No – my dear friend Kathy LaMotte wrote me this note. I’ve posted it here with her permission.
When I was in high school, my friend Robert killed himself because I wouldn’t go out with him.
I “learned” that saying no could kill people, at least when I did it. You can imagine that I had a wee tiny problem saying no after that.
Years later, I volunteered at an emergency shelter. We took in people in all sorts of emergencies — abused women with kids, runaways, etc. — so everyone needed it to be a safe place. For this reason, we did not take people who were intoxicated.
Night after night, homeless guys would come to the door drunk, wanting to stay. We had to say no. It was such an important part of the job that, in our training, we each practiced Saying No at the door.
It was this experience that finally taught me an important thing about Saying No.
We all had this need to convince the drunk guy that our decision was right. We wanted him to agree with us. We explained. We blamed rules. We blamed the “higher-ups.” All to no avail, of course — until we finally got angry enough and slammed the door.
The drunk person would manipulate, accuse us of being uncaring, threaten the shelter with bad publicity. This triggered our deepest fears: I’m not nice and other people will think I’m not nice.
(The funny part was realizing that the drunk guy was *never* going to agree — he had a big interest in seeing it the other way. Here we were at the door, trying to convince a drunk guy that it really was better for all concerned that he not get a nice clean bed tonight.)
What I learned was this:
The advance work was important. I had to convince myself that I had a right to say no. I had to BELIEVE that it was rightfully my/our decision, and that it was possible to say no firmly but without anger.
I could choose to explain if I thought it might be helpful, but I had no obligation to explain, and sometimes explaining wasn’t helpful. (After all, “You’re drunk” does not elicit a “You’re right, I’m drunk, I’ll go now” response.)
I could just say, kindly, “No, sorry, you can’t stay here tonight” and close the door.
And that, by the way, was much more respectful to the other person than getting defensive and resentful.