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Just Say No Applied: How to be Assertive

Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")

While "Just Say 'No'" has become a pat phrase (not unlike "Have a Good Day") putting this affirmative concept into action is often easier said than done. The Stress Doc provides ten strategies for turning popular and too often simplistic expression into applied and substantive reality.

How to Say "No and to Negotiate"

Here are ten "tips and techniques to help you say "No and to Negotiate":

1. Clean Up Your Static to Give a Clear Message. Saying "No" is not easy, especially if you believe the other party will be disappointed, feel rejected or become angry. There's a tendency to either delay or dilute the limit-setting message. And for a person who consistently accepts a deadline while knowingly withholding reservations about its reality and then, at the eleventh hour, apologetically admits to not being able to make good on his promise, there's a label: passive-aggressive "stress carrier." Ouch! (And you know the definition of a stress carrier: a person who doesn't get ulcers…just gives them!)

So confront your anxiety about hurting the other or of being hurt. Don't engage in overprotection or infantilization; the other person is responsible for handling his or her own emotions. And beware of projecting your own fear of rejection in a conflict situation; that is, you may dread rejection more than your antagonist. Even more basic, if experiencing emotional static or flooding during the interpersonal encounter try to defuse any impulsive or reactive energy. Check in with yourself, if not count to ten. Use self-dialogue to acknowledge feeling hurt, scared or angry, and then talk yourself down.

The key is being clear and upfront in your own mind in order to deliver a clean "No" message in a timely, if not immediate, manner. However, there is an art and a method of boundary setting that will help you establish limits while gradually encouraging a mutual discussion and problem-solving process. Read on!

2. Be Empathic Yet Firm. In the face of another's request or demand, saying "No" and slamming the door while walking out of the office or room is immature. (Of course, a blow up may also indicate that you feel trapped in a no-win or abusive situation. Maybe it's time to rethink your position, or to leave without slamming or being slammed.) Storming out can also be self-defeating. The recipient of such hostility will likely find ways to get even - overtly or covertly. If possible, before delivering your "No" try to acknowledge the request without being defensive: "I know this project is important to you." If you can, itemize the reasons for its importance, e.g., an upcoming deadline, achieving a specific goal, or the negative consequences for missing a deadline or compromising an objective.

Now, clearly and decisively say "No." Briefly explain why you can't meet the request as presented. Then counter your own "No" with, "However, here's what I can do." You also may need to ask for feedback if the other party is perturbed by your initial position. (See #8.) If your "No" and your empathic counter make an initial connection with the "Four Problem-Solving 'P's" -- the other person's Pain and Passion, Purpose and Power -- you will be laying the groundwork for "N & N": No and Negotiation. (And connecting to power may involve recognizing the other's strengths and/or understanding his vulnerability or feeling of impotence.)

3. Use Relevant Facts and Place Issue in Context. For example, if a manager asks you to work on the weekend, responding in the following manner is less than a desirable strategy: "You always ask me to work on the weekend. You're not being fair. I'm not doing it!" One problem with the response is that it's too global: "You always ask me." And out of frustration, by impulsively declaring, "I'm not doing it," you come across somewhere between being petulant and defiant. You are also slamming the door on potential clarification, negotiation and consensus building.

A better strategy is being objective, not objectionable. For example, try saying: "I'm frustrated. I'm not sure you realize that it's the third time this month that I've come in on the weekend. I know this project is out of the ordinary; and I do want to be a team player. However, maybe we need a better department-wide system for enlisting weekend workers. By waiting till Thursday afternoon for recruiting whoever's available, the weekend workload is not falling equally on department personnel. I'd like to bring this up on Monday in a department meeting."

You may decide to work the weekend in hopes of having the boss "owe you." Obviously, being "on call" is built into some job descriptions. If being available 24/7 doesn't apply, then, even without specific weekend plans, you have the right to protect your home-life and work-life boundaries. Alas, if you have a boss who, on a consistent basis, won't respect such boundaries and there is no recourse for appealing to a higher authority (besides praying fervently) then it may be time to reassess the viability of your job situation.

4. Use Assertive "I"s Not Blaming "You"s. There is an art to expressing frustration and anger. Blurting out blaming "You" messages, e.g., "You're not fair" or as previously mentioned, the global, "You always," not only highlights gaps in your communication capacity. In addition, this approach only throws fuel on the feedback fire. The other party will likely become defensive-aggressive or passive-aggressive, perhaps getting even at a later time. As highlighted, you can be assertive and tactful when making an objective point: "I'm not sure you realize I have worked three weekends this month." Using tentative phrasing - "I'm not sure" - is often a sign of strength. (Of course, there are times when its use reflects questionable motives. After a workshop, I recall a judge sharing that he liked my tactful yet tactical "I'm not so sure" counter in the heat of a potentially "right vs. wrong" power struggle. He thought he might try it out with some of those obnoxiously aggressive attorneys with whom he battles daily: "I'm not so sure…you a-hole!" Umm, judge…you don't have to credit me for your new approach to engagement.)

Obviously, be careful about using provocative language that seems to label or critically judge someone as "unfair" (let alone a body part). Focus your comments and concern on the specific problematic behavior. Of course, when there has been a pattern of problematic behavior or decision-making, emotional subjectivity may need to be addressed before objectivity can be achieved. Consider an opening that drops the exasperated, blaming "You"s: "I have to say I'm confused and frustrated." This allows you to blow off some steam without being overly reactive. You are acknowledging and taking responsibility for your emotions.

By purposefully channeling your aggression you are better able to calmly and effectively assert "the facts." You also can affirm your beliefs and boundary without being defensive, that is, blurting out "I'm not doing it." Now your "No" seems less negative. Instead of shutting a door you are opening a problem-solving window that frames the issue in a more useful and inviting manner.

5. Don't Apologize. If you pride yourself on being understanding and accommodating, if you downplay the importance of "giving of yourself and giving to yourself," then saying "No" can be a challenge to your sense of identity and self-worth. As was illustrated in Part I, numbers of people grew up in families that strictly enforced loyalty to authority: Difference and disagreement were perceived as disapproval and disloyalty. Non-conformity, displays of individuality and expressions of anger were met with guilt-laced tongue-lashings, if not physical beatings. My "Law of the Loyalty Loop" may have prevailed: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!

So to deliver that clean and clear "NO"…you must believe you have the right to say "No." And this right exists even if you can't deliver an airtight defense of your position. You do not have to be like a character in a Franz Kafka novel, living a bureaucratic nightmare, forever on trial and carrying around a vague sense of guilt. (If this plot sounds too familiar, it may be psychotherapy time; much better than Miller Time.)

As revolutionary as it may sound, you are allowed to disappoint others without having to justify yourself: "Right now, this is how I feel" or "Right now, this is what I intend to do (or not do)." So don't apologize for your "No." Remember, it's often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Boldly embrace the "Basic Law of Safe Stress": Do know your limits and don't limit your "No"s!

6. Repeat Yourself Exactly. For some people, hearing a "No" can be as difficult as it is for others to take a contrary stance. Some receivers will quickly decide that your "No" is a sign of disloyalty or defiance. Other recipients of your "negativity," especially individuals who see themselves as being so accommodating and self-sacrificing, who have done so much for you, may feel deprived or betrayed. They are entitled to your siding with them, if not rewarding them, for their goodness. While claiming their motives are devoid of self-interest, ironically, you have violated their "just world" hypothesis. (Self-righteous attitudes and actions yield the right and deserved results.) Alas, these people are trapped in their own "fairness fallacy," and want to drag you into their "holier than thou" belief system.

What this means is that your "No" may well be a shock to a demanding or delicate or a delicately demanding and dysfunctional person. And typically, in a state of shock, our sensory apparatus begins to glaze over. Or, once the shock has passed, the receiver of your "No" feels threatened or attacked and now generates a narrow, one-point focus. In such a scenario, "message sent is not message (objectively) received."

Clearly, if it's important to get your message across, then persistence is necessary for restoring some transmission if not order to the transaction. In other words, repeat your message -- word for word. If your initial message was objectively clear and straightforward, don't modify the content out of anxiety or false hopes. Remember, the message was blocked as much by your challenging (or being perceived as challenging) the other's sense of status and sense of justice as it was by the antagonist misunderstanding the rationale, logic or implications of your content.

However, two caveats. Based on the preceding argument, you should not be surprised by the receiver fumbling or dropping your "No" message. Second, don't take it personally if the other person doesn't "get it" at first. If not careful your surprise, disappointment or frustration will contaminate your second delivery. At best, the message will have an exasperated or impatient air; at worst, your repetition may reek of a self-righteous or condescending tone.

7. Be Brief and Congruent. If your intention is to affirm your position, then saying "No" and your subsequent explanatory message should be clear and to the point. To borrow from the Bard, Brevity is (not just) the soul of wit. Being concise sounds confident: you seem in control if not in command. Adding excess verbiage (often reflecting our psychic baggage) not only dilutes or obscures the crux of your message. Over talking can also undermine your status and erode the perceived strength of your position and person. Suddenly you are defensively justifying your beliefs or behavior.

Just as unnecessary words and explanations can obfuscate a clear "No" message, nonverbal dynamics can also powerfully impact "message sent is message received." If a "No" is delivered tentatively or meekly, with eyes diverted and shoulders slumping, then words and body language are incongruent. You'll be lucky to be only accused of sending mixed messages. Invariably, a passive or ambivalent nonverbal presentation trumps the spoken word. Conversely, squared shoulders, direct eye contact along with a clear and firm tone heighten the credibility and potency of your "No."

The Bully Boss

Here's an example. I recall a paralegal who was being unfairly criticized, if not ridiculed, by a senior partner attorney to whom she was assigned. Alas, he seemed to enjoy tormenting subordinates. (Can we borrow a New York Daily News headline and call this the "O'Really Factor"?) Most people would not stand up to him. The paralegal was making herself sick trying to get on the abuser's "good side." On the verge of quitting, she finally spoke with a more senior colleague. The latter's direct and concise advice: "Get tough or leave." (The other senior partners were not ready to take on this Rambo rainmaker.)

The young paralegal decided to become steely; she was not going to let this jerk drive her off. While it took practice, she began giving brief, no nonsense answers to this bully. She carefully modulated her emotional expressiveness; firm and business-like was her mantra. In other words, despite the status disparity between these antagonists, she was no longer being so deferential to the authority.

And big surprise. No longer able to make the paralegal squirm (at least outwardly), the attorney lost interest in "the game." This woman eventually left the firm, but on her terms. Clearly, being concise verbally and in control emotionally can foster inner resolve and be a source of interpersonal strength.

Of course, on the "burnout battlefield," having to employ this survival coping strategy for extended periods of time may not be healthy for your mind and body. But this strategic position may help you win the short-term encounter. And you'll be setting limits and boundaries that may enable you, over time, to win the war, at least symbolically. And you'll have a greater chance to leave the battlefield under your own powers.

8. Now Ask for Input. Once you have clearly and concisely affirmed your starting (or non-starting) position, you have a solid base for soliciting feedback. Two feedback or negotiation possibilities immediately come to mind: a) discovering and acknowledging the other's thoughts and feelings about your "No" and/or b) having a discussion about problem-solving options.

Soliciting or accepting the other's input, especially a counterargument to your "No," may preempt an open or ongoing power struggle. Counterattitudinal research indicates that allowing people to argue with you often narrows a content and relational gap between antagonists. Remember, we rarely just argue facts; frequently the intensity of an exchange involves elements of self-esteem and status. The implied message of your challenger: "You better realize that I have the freedom or the control to disagree with you and your "No." Or, "Don't think you are better or smarter than me." For example, a subordinate expressing his or her difference with an authority (or vice versa) often takes the steam out of issue defiance. Ironically, by not fighting another's need for control you may help the other loosen the control reins. And allowing an antagonist to disagree with you may, over time, help this person come around to your factual or attitudinal viewpoint. As I like to say:

If we can allow a person who says, 'Yes, but,' to rebut
Even if they may be a pain in the…(but you know what I mean)
We can often get them to say, 'But…yes!'

Remember, in the long run, handling another's criticism or frustration with openness, calm and conviction often builds trust. Also, within the framework of a self-reaffirming and trust-building "No" and post-"No" exchange, the stage is often set for productive negotiation: Mutual concession and "letting go" of "the one right way" frees the mind to discover overlooked options or design novel approaches. As Nobel prize-winning author, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

If at all possible, work hard to have both parties experience some sense of relief or positive outcome. Or, at least, during this negotiation, the contentious parties must believe that the concessions or loss of status and goals are mutual and not disproportionately one-sided. My favorite definition of consensus: each contending party gives up a little for the benefit of the common or greater good.

9. Time Out Option. In the heat of interpersonal conflict, if not outright battle, it's easy to lose your cool. (Just think of George W.'s performance in the first 2004 debate.) Rational thought or expression (including managing facial scowling) is challenging when excited or highly emotional. It's important to realize you have the option to say, "Right now my position is 'No'" or even, "I'm not sure. I need to think about this further. I'll get back with you first thing tomorrow."

Taking a "time out" is not necessarily retreating in the negative sense, that is, you are not fleeing with your tail between your legs. Choosing to retreat can be a meditated option allowing you to reflect on your position and the nature of the conflict. And, if necessary, it also buys time for planning a more effective immediate counter and subsequent strategy. Also, don't kick yourself for not mustering the perfect comeback to an arrogant or pompous aggressor. Know that you can recover from this momentary lapse. Have a good night's rest, formulate your riposte, and you'll nail the jerk in the morning. (Just kidding.)

Again, taking a time out means you are clearly setting a boundary, whether you have or have not articulated a definite "No." And hitting the pause button means you are less likely to be pressured into an impulsive reaction or decision. You are exerting some control, yet leaving open some room for negotiation. You present yourself as neither rigid nor righteous, that is, a know it all. You are not throwing fuel, i.e., "hot air" on the interpersonal fire. While your antagonist may still be smoldering, he also has time to ponder his reaction and your position along with his needs and expectations. A time out can be a "cooling off" period.

10. Summarize Agreements and Confirm Expectations, Including the Monitoring Process. As we tackle the final tip, first let's acknowledge that the preceding steps comprise an affirmation and negotiation process. Now, after you have put on the table and put to the test your initial "No" and subsequent ideas and beliefs, expectations and emotions, it is wise to recapitulate your take on the agreement. Also, ask the other party to put into words his or her understanding of what you won't do and what you will do. In turn, summarize the other's position and agreement. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool for closing any remaining gaps between "message sent and message received." Don't be surprised if you still require some final feedback volleys to reach consensus. And this "end game" exchange is critical for getting both parties on the same page regarding expectations: Do both parties have the same working conception of negotiated action plans and problem-solving steps?

Returning to our opening scenario involving the employee putting in more weekend overtime than his or her colleagues, here are some monitoring markers:

a) has the manager placed the issue on the table in a timely manner at a team meeting?

b) does the team believe that the current project justifies extra-ordinary weekend work or do people feel they are being compelled to work unnecessary overtime because of a manager's or team member's inefficiency? and

c) if there is consensus on the need for this overtime, and a system and structure has been devised that has group "buy-in," does the negotiated plan, once put into action, achieve a more equitable distribution in the weekend workload? Surely, this is the bottom line!

Closing Summary

These ten guilt busting, boundary setting and bridge building commandments are not just guides for saying "No," disarming power struggles and achieving productive consensus. Our "N & N" top ten yield strategic ideas for helping us all…Practice Safe Stress!