By AJ Copeland
My Chair asks me to host the Department holiday party at my house. An office nurse hits me up to purchase giftwrapping for her son’s fundraiser. My mother wants to come along when we buy our tree.
As we hurdle into the holiday season, it is easy with our busy schedules to feel especially overscheduled and overstressed during what is “supposed to” be a joyous time of year. It is tempting to take on new commitments when asked to, whether out of guilt, a need to be liked, fear of rejection, conflict avoidance, or a misguided notion that we can “do it all”. And so it is particularly useful at this time to review strategies to say “NO”. Saying “no” can be one of the biggest gifts you give yourself and those you love, because it will reduce your stress levels and give you more time for what’s really important.
Why is it so hard to say “no”? Research studies have shown that many times people will say “yes” to a request simply because saying “no” makes them even more uncomfortable. The fact is that most people, especially women, have been socialized to be nice to others. Saying “yes” also appears to be hardwired. Research shows that when women are cooperative, neural activity in the brain’s reward region dramatically increases; our brains actually reward us for people-pleasing.
It’s helpful to remember that “No” is an honorable response, and it is your prerogative to use it. It is your time/money/talents/labor/assets/whatever that are being solicited, and you have the choice to accept or decline what is being asked. You deserve to assert your boundaries and be respected! Remind yourself that it’s not personal: saying “no” does not mean you’re rejecting the asking person; it means that you’re turning down a specific request that the person is making of your precious resources.
When faced with an “ask”, respond initially with a brief pause. This gives the impression you are seriously considering the request, even if you have no intention of accepting. Next, thank the person for the compliment of asking you. After that, use a simple, direct, and confident declarative statement starting with the word “No” — it’s easier to keep the commitment to say “No,” if it’s the first word out of your mouth.
“No, I won’t be able to help with that.” Make eye contact and use a sympathetic, but firm tone.
Shake your head “No” as you say, “No.”
Don’t apologize, don’t explain.
It is a trait of adult children that we feel we have to give a very good reason for not doing something we have been invited or asked to do. You may briefly state a reason why you are declining the ask, but you do not owe anyone an explanation. You have your reasons and they may not be ones you wish to discuss. If this is the case and if pressed, say something simple like, “I’m just not able to.”
An alternative approach is to respond, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” Then, on your own time, assess whether the request aligns with your own priorities. If necessary, ask for more details. Remember that there are only so many hours in the day. This means that if you say “yes” to a new commitment, invariably something else (including time for relaxation and self-care) will need to be jettisoned from your schedule. Do a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and then get back to the asker (within a defined period) with a yes or no. The pause tactic enables you to avoid responding “yes” as a knee-jerk.
If you would really like to do what’s being asked, but simply don’t have the time/resources, one option is to say, “I can’t do this, but I can…” and offer an alternative commitment that you can keep. Or, “I’m afraid this doesn’t work with my schedule this year, but please ask me again next time.” This way you can have control over your involvement.
Remember: Be true to yourself, your convictions, and your priorities. Saying no is a skill that gets easier with practice. Start today by identifying opportunities to honor yourself more fully by saying no.
Dr. Copeland is a longtime member of the Association of Women Surgeons, joining the Council in 2002 and serving as the organization’s President in 2008-2009. She is a Fellow of the ACS, and a member of the Women in Surgery Committee of the ACS. She began her term as the third AWS Governor to the American College of Surgeons in 2012. She treasures the many friendships she has made through the AWS and the opportunity to associate with so many beautiful, talented, and smart women surgeons (and surgeons-in-training) of all generations.