Rejecting a request generally isn't fun, whether the advance is romantic ("Want to go out Saturday?"), professional ("Can you have the report done by 1 p.m.?") or social ("Come on, just one more drink!").
"A lot of times people say yes when they don't want to, because they're afraid of hurting or disappointing somebody," said Ben Benjamin, co-author with Amy Yeager and Anita Simon of the forthcoming book, "Conversation Transformation: Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns" (
"People worry, 'What will happen if I say no?'" added Yeager. "They have a worst-case scenario in their head."
Here's how to avoid regretting your response.
Degree of difficulty:
Hard — if you have trouble saying no. But, like most things, it gets easier with practice.
"There is a whole group of people who immediately say no without thinking and another who say yes without thinking," Benjamin said. "I give the same advice to both groups: 'Thanks for asking. Let me think about it.' Then think about, 'What do I want from this situation?'"
You need to know your tendencies. That self-awareness can help you avoid a knee-jerk response in either direction.
Out of courtesy, give them a time frame, Yeager said. "'Let me look at my schedule and I'll get back to you in an hour, or tomorrow.' They're not left hanging."
Beware of offers you can't refuse.
Sometimes, a request isn't a direct, open question. Your acceptance is assumed. "I want to watch the games today (so you will be in charge of the kids for the next 10 hours)." Or, "You did such a great job with x, we've given you the honor of y!" That can create feelings of manipulation, which leads to arguing or resentment.
"Understand what the leading question is — it's a question AND it's an opinion telling you what the right answer is," Benjamin said. A strategy for dealing with it is to paraphrase what you heard. "I hear you saying you want to watch the games; are you asking if I will keep the kids busy till bedtime?" That gives you time to think, "Am I all right with this?" If not, say, "I had a different idea; let's talk about it."
If someone asks if you'd like to go out, and you aren't interested, skip the procrastination and mixed messages. "It's often easier in the long run to be direct. Not cruel, but direct," Yeager said. If there's a real reason you feel comfortable sharing, you can add one briefly.
"No matter what you're saying, keep your voice tone neutral and clear," Yeager said. "Be clear with yourself in what you're saying and not have guilt or worry come through." Added Benjamin: "If you do a 'yes, but,' the person is going to come back again and again, and it's even more disappointing and upsetting, and you get caught in a lie."
Intending to demonstrate goodwill, people often respond with a sort of yes-no-yes, as in, "Oh, bowling sounds like such fun. But I told my mom I would take her shopping and then I have to do carpool and then Allie hasn't been feeling well. I wish I could join you." If you have no intention of ever heaving a bowling ball, you've just delayed the inevitable letdown. If the person sees through your veil of regret, you've called your sincerity into question for future interactions.
Living in reality is ultimately easier, Benjamin said, even if occasionally uncomfortable: "People often think they have to lie, otherwise the person is going to be mad." And sometimes they will.
But, he said, "Both business and interpersonal relationships fail when people are behaving in ways that are not resonant with what they want."