Do you find it difficult to say ‘no’? “Yes”. That’s because you are a mixture of a very nice person who always wants to help and someone desperate not to be left out of anything. Added to these motives, we all find it difficult to say ‘no’. The beggar rattling his tin on the sidewalk makes us feel guilty of our relative affluence. And insecure child seeking attention gets an immediate response even when we know that long-term it would be better to encourage independence. Lonely people plead so much for our time.
Russia has a solution – “Nyet”. It is the bluntest ‘no’ I know. It is unambiguous, bordering on offensive. So you could always resort to “Nyet”. But you won’t, and for a very good reason. You don’t want to be thought rude, heartless or even blunt. You were probably brought up on a religious theme of ‘ask and you shall receive’ and rightly think that applies to you as a giver, too. ‘Not to share creates despair’ is poor poetry but a thoughtful idea.
Which do you dislike more, being told ‘yes’ and then being let down or being told ‘no’? It’s a curious question. Over half the people, if they answered truthfully, would opt for the former. Strange that we more readily make up reasons about why someone has failed us than we will accommodate a refusal. There is no accounting for a few aspects of human nature.
Here are seven suggestions of how to deliver ‘no’ when you instinctively want to say ‘yes’. Ask for an estimate of the time involved in the request. Most people won’t be able to give you one. Those who do need to be asked to prove its reliability. Your question already shows that you are busy. Almost any answer will itself admit that you are too busy.  Ask questions about the request – what it is for, who will benefit and so on. Most people seeking your help won’t have thought the project through, or what the request involves. Making them think about it will also make them think about how much they can reasonably ask you for.  Be honest about potential conflict of interests. Don’t invent lies but there may be work you are doing that would clash with what they want you to do. Nothing is more galling than to find a person who has committed suddenly revealing a conflict half way through.  Show real interest in the project by asking about it. You are then entitled to say you would really like to help but…  Ask for reciprocal help, not in order to make the matter purely transactional but to show that you need help too. “If you could relieve me of some of this work I might be able to find the time to do some of yours.”  Ask about the quality of work required. It will normally be of the highest standard. Point out that this takes a lot longer than some slipshod job which you would never contemplate doing anyway. People understand your need to do high quality work.  Expand the project to something logical but much bigger. This will require more than the help you can reasonably be expected to give. But beware – they may now ask you to chair a committee, the biggest time consumer of all.
We all need to devote quite a lot of our time to other people. The busiest of us will do so willingly because we are also generally the most organised.
But there are times when we need to say no. Avoid a ‘NYET’ but be firm.
Too much to do is as debilitating as too little.