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We’ve all been there; you had every intention of spending the evening/weekend relaxing or spending time with a loved one, and yet here you are doing something for a friend/colleague/family member because it was easier than saying “No”.

I meet people all the time who tell me they have trouble with saying no. One spent several hundred pounds going on a hen weekend with a bunch of people she barely knew, when she’d much rather (and more sensibly) have spent the time relaxing after a stressful week at work.

Another spent three evenings last week providing some muscle moving furniture around the community hall in readiness for some event to other. He ‘promised’ to do it months ago, and so missed the more recently planned parents’ evening at his son’s school.

We’ve all done it, we all know others who we say we “don’t want to let down”, when what we really mean is we don’t know how to refuse, or that to decline the request would make us feel bad.

Compassionate refusal

The trick to saying no politely and elegantly is (if you think ‘trick’ sounds like a deception how about ‘tactic’), to decline the request while reaffirming support/friendship for the person requesting the favour. You are not rejecting THEM, you are simply telling them that you can’t help on this occasion:

“I appreciate you asking, I’m already committed to a family event/much needed rest/catching up on some coursework, so I can’t help this time. I hope it goes well.”

Or simply:

“I have other plans tonight/this weekend, but I could help you this at another time (as long as you want to) if you need it.”

If you do have to refuse to do something the term ‘compassionate refusal’ can make it feel more acceptable (to you) than ‘saying no’ does. The key idea behind it is that you are telling the other person that you’ll be unable to help, but you not refusing support, friendship, or to spend your coffee breaks with them.

There are two possible obstacles to saying no:

  1. Whatever you call it, you feel bad about declining the request for help. It’s just a feeling, it’ll pass and you’ll get over it. More to the point, if they value and respect you, so will they.
  2. However compassionate you are, THEY call call it betrayal/being let down/difficult… The list can be long and in some cases, manipulative. You have no control over how they choose to see it or what they say (to you or others). Simply reaffirm with something like “I’m sorry you feel that way, as I said I can’t help because I’m (your original explanation)”.

Things to avoid when (briefly) explaining that you are unable to help are:

  • Mumbling
  • Looking at your feet/over their shoulder/around for help (look ‘em in the eye)
  • Lying, no need for that
  • Long-winded explanations (keep it short and to the point)
  • Unnecessary talking (accept that there might be an awkward silence for a bit)
  • Over-compensating by offering to go on holiday with them/redecorate their living room.

If – even though you have been sincere, honest and as friendly and supportive as possible – you still feel bad, guilty even, get over it. Of course you’ll feel a little uncomfortable if this is a change in behaviour for you.

If THEY make you feel bad by their attitude/words towards you, get over THEM, they should know better than to use emotional blackmail.

Good Luck! Buena Suerte, Bonne Chance… the choice of language is yours.

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