My daughter started gymnastics today. I sat in the observation area to ease her nervousness about being in a new place with new people. As I was sitting there, I thought about my upcoming obligations and commitments. I thought about a specific commitment that I’ve made that well, every time I think about it, I feel a little sick to my stomach, and not in a roller coaster, I’m so excited kind of way. This has been going on for the last several days.
I’ve not been ignoring that feeling, but instead of acting on it, I’ve been wondering why I feel so uncomfortable about having said yes to this particular (ongoing, fairly long-term) commitment. While I am pretty loaded up with things to take care of right now, I could not think of a specific logical reason why THIS particular YES was causing me so much discomfort. At any rate, I was mulling this a bit and then decided to set it aside and read while my daughter worked on the low bar.
As I’m reading this book on coaching for work situations (yes, this is what I do in the not very pleasant smelling gymnastics club), I get to a section on managing your workload. And this question hits me right between the eyes: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” One interpretation of this question would be “If you’ll even do this awful thing, you must not say no to anything,” but this is not what the author, Michael Bungay Stanier, is getting at. In this case, the question is meant to reveal the full impact of your yes. If you say yes to this, what are you going to have to give up in order to fulfill the commitment that you’re making. How will you make space for that new commitment?
AHA! Lightbulbs, lightning, skies parting, choirs of angels… okay maybe not that last bit. But I was floored as I realized that my problem with the commitment that I’d made (admittedly with the weakest “yes” I could muster) would get in the way of fulfilling other promises I’d made to myself, other purposes I had for that time, other space I needed to maintain to fulfill my other, previously made and higher priority, commitments. So my hesitation about the commitment I made is NOT actually about the task I’ve reluctantly and only partially agreed to, it’s about what I give up if I do it. THAT makes sense. As I think about it, my stomach hurts imagining giving those things up. Yep, that’s it.
Well, that’s just great. Now I know why I don’t want to do it, but what do I do now?! It seems that I’m going to have to muster a relatively strong no to counter my weak yes. And I so dread it. I’m not universally bad at “no,” but when I’m bad at it, I’m really bad at it. This seems to be one of those times. It’s equally clear that I really should have said no in the first place, which is creating an opportunity for a little useless self-flagellation. Rather than getting bogged down in the self punishment for the weakness of my yes, I read on, and my author provided some more information about saying no that I actually found pretty helpful.
Stanier describes good and bad reasons for saying no. I won’t elaborate on them here, because honestly I don’t think you need to adopt his good and bad reasons, you can come up with your own, but I admit Iwas fortified by seeing “I’ve thought about what my core priorities are, and I’m willing to hold the line” listed as a good reason to say no. Yep, that’s what’s going on alright. I’ve got a good reason to say no. So why is this difficult? My real problem here is that I hate to say no to this specific person.
We all have people we struggle to set boundaries with. I have a type of person I struggle to set boundaries with. I am not so good at saying no to people who clearly have a WHOLE LOT on their plates and really need help. Pardon me while I put my cape on so I can rescue you!!! Yeah, I know, I’m working on it. And this is the person I must now return to and rescind my weak yes, and replace it with a kind but very real no. Stanier suggests that this situation can be easier if we make it really clear (to ourselves in particular) that what we are saying no to is the task, the request, not the person. This is allowed. When adults make a request, one of the expected outcomes should be a “no.” When adults respond to a request, one of the options is “no.” In fact, “no” is always an option. An option that creates space, time, and energy for all of the things you really, really, really want to say “yes” to.
So today, I’m going to do it. I’m going to take back my yes. I’m going to say no so I can do what I actually want and need to do. Cape off, neatly folded. I will be a better me for it. And everything else really will be okay. And the next request I get? I’m going to ask lots of questions and slow things down so I can figure out what I’m saying “no” to if I decide to say “yes”. This is my solemn vow.