5 WAYS TO SAY NO AT WORK
Assertiveness will help grease the wheels of your career track. Here’s how to become more confident in asking for what you need.
adecade ago, a member of an online community in the US asked for advice on a message board. One of his wife’s distant friends had invited herself to stay with them for a lengthy period and they were looking for guidance on how to decline the request without affronting the prospective house guest.
Dozens of people posted advice, but one comment – by the writer Andrea Donderi – went viral, and has probably done more for peace, love and understanding in the past 10 years than the Dalai Lama himself.
Donderi divided the world into two types of people: Those who feel they can ask for anything, and those who are “guessers”. Askers make requests of others, knowing full well that they will get a “no”. They will ask anything – a raise, a bite of your sandwich – from anyone, regardless of how well they know you. They are completely open to being rebuffed, and their life philosophy boils down to “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Askers are extremely assertive and often get what they want – if they don’t, they simply shrug it off.
The second group are “guessers”. These are people who probably won’t ask you a favour unless they are pretty sure you will say yes. First prize for them is not even having to ask for it. Some guessers can be very smart about phrasing their needs and getting you to see what they require.
Donderi’s post went viral because it explained why human interaction can go so spectacularly wrong.
When an asker meets a guesser the results can be disastrous. One party feels she is simply making a straightforward request, while the guesser feels terribly affronted by such an unreasonable demand. Already outraged and disturbed, the guesser then has to face the anxiety of formulating a negative response to counter the asker’s request. Given that a “no” as such causes huge stress for a guesser, they assume that the asker is struggling with the same extreme anxiety about being rejected. But instead of feeling gutted, the asker will typically shrug it off. It never hurts to ask, right?
Donderi’s theory has helped many people to better understand someone who is on the other side of the ask/guess spectrum.
Understanding the different outlooks can remove much tension in relationships and can also be particularly helpful in the office.
Much of the stress between colleagues are due to the miscommunication between guessers, who are very careful about making requests and supersensitive about being declined, and askers, who simply ask for stuff.
A particularly tricky situation is when a guesser has an asker for a boss. The guesser may experience their manager as extremely demanding and unreasonable, while the “asking” boss is simply testing the waters.
Donderi herself said that resolving the tensions between the groups are all about “having the intelligence and perception to recognise what you need, the courage to ask for it, and the tact to do it gracefully”.
Askers definitely have to be aware of the consternation they cause – but in truth, guessers have the bigger challenge. They need to do the hard work of overcoming their sensitivity and having the self-confidence to say no. A lack of assertiveness in these situations usually stems from low self-confidence, says Gizelle McIntyre, director of The Institute of People Development, a training body, in Johannesburg.
When you feel uncertain, you bite your tongue when unfair demands are made and resentment starts to build. “If you don’t assert yourself and believe in your own abilities, chances are that no one else will. You won’t be given the interesting work or challenging projects, and an ‘asker’ boss will capitalise on your lack of assertiveness.” The only way to build your confidence in the workplace is by starting to believe in your own capabilities. This begins with making sure you have equipped yourself with all the necessary domain knowledge and that you are building up areas of expertise.
“Consider doing a course, or getting a professional
A particularly tricky situation is when a guesser has an asker for a boss. The guesser may experience her manager as extremely demanding and unreasonable, while the “asking” boss is simply testing the waters.
designation,” says McIntyre. “Professionalisation can do wonders for your confidence.”
Work at being better at your job every day, by being more prepared for meetings and projects, and by stretching yourself with new challenges every day. When you can prove to yourself (and others) that you are capable, this will help with your assertiveness in the office.
HOW TO SAY NO 1) Be firm and unemotional when you decline a demand
There is a clear difference between being assertive and being aggressive, says McIntyre. When you say no in an assertive, neutral way, the person on the other end is immediately clear on your response and the reasons you are declining. An aggressive response leaves people confused about what the sub-text is, why you are reacting in that way and what exactly you are trying to say.
“At all times, keep emotion out of your responses. If the other person reacts in anger, this will give you the upper hand in the interaction.”
2) Use a declarative statement, chased by an “I feel”
When confronted with an unreasonable request (“Can you work through the night on this project?”), start off with a factual statement (“I have been working late every night this past week.”), followed by an “I feel” statement (“I feel that I often have to complete the unfinished work of other parties.”).
3) Set boundaries
Be firm about what is acceptable to you.
4) Verbalise your needs
Don’t depend on others for recognition or to give you what you want.
5) Start small
Grow a thicker skin bit by bit: take a stand on something that you feel strongly about (the air conditioner setting in the conference room), but which won’t ruin your life if no one else agrees with your request.
Gizelle McIntyre Director of The Institute of People Development