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When we regret saying ‘Yes’

The scenario

‘I said yes before I realised just how many people I would need to involve’  said a friend of mine.

Asked if she would help the designers validate their assessment tool, she had said yes. Of course she did. That’s characteristic of the delightful person she is. When someone asks for her help, her default response is to give it.

I’ll hazard a guess that many of you are the same. And I celebrate it. The world is a better place for that willingness to help.

But ‘Yes’ might not be the most appropriate answer.

Unintended consequences

Just pause a moment and consider this question:

Are there times when you say ‘Yes’ because…
… you don’t see that you have a choice?
… or because saying Yes seems less complicated than No?
… or there’s a voice in your head telling you it would be hurtful to say No?
… or you are obliged – for some reason embedded in the depths of your psyche – to say Yes?

Are you resonating with some of the above? All of the above? They are all very familiar to me!

In the moment of being asked, our response might be an immediate and unreserved Yes.

It’s only later, when we consider the implications, that we begin to have doubts.

We berate ourselves. ‘Why on earth did I say Yes?’ we say, or ‘I’ve done it again!’

We do what we agreed to, but begrudgingly. We invest less energy. We look for excuses to opt out or leave early.

We begin to feel resentful.

We’re not the only one to suffer

It’s no fun being on the receiving end of such half-hearted support. It sends a message that we can’t be trusted. And when people pick up on our reluctance and try to check out our willingness, we’ll probably fire off a tetchy ‘I’m doing what I said I’d do, aren’t I?’.

So what’s the alternative?

Step 1:

Change begins with awareness. So your first step is to notice your pattern. When and to whom do you habitually say ‘Yes’?

Step 2:

Listen to the story you’re telling yourself. If it is littered with thoughts of ‘ought’, ‘should’ and ‘have to’, you will convince yourself that you don’t have any choice.

But is that really true?

It’s more likely that it’s hard to imagine being able to say No because you feel embarrassed or fearful of the reaction you’ll get.

Step 3:

Check out what lies behind the request. What would your ‘Yes’ mean to the person making it?

Making a contribution to another person’s wellbeing can be deeply satisfying. When you know what needs a ‘Yes’ would meet for them, it will be more likely that you can give your wholehearted commitment – even though you might have preferred to do something else.

Step 4:

Take whatever time you need to give a considered response. But don’t just say ‘I need time to think’. Show care by saying something like ‘I know I tend to say Yes without thinking things through – and then I sometimes regret it later. I don’t want this to happen between you and me, so I’d like to think about whether I can willingly do what you’re asking. Would it work for you if I give you an answer tomorrow morning?

Step 5:

Practise saying ‘No’ with care and compassion, so that you put your needs on an equal footing with other people’s.

When you trust yourself to do this, your ‘Yes’ will be given freely and joyfully. You will find the power to act out of choice rather than habit or a desire to be ‘nice’. Far from being hurtful, this says ‘I care about you and want things to be clear and open between us’. That, surely, is a gift of friendship.

Manifesto for ‘Yes’

When we say ‘Yes’. we are willingly making a statement of commitment,

We say goodbye to the unconsidered or reluctant Yes that masks our inability to say a careful and considerate No.

We cultivate the ability to say an honest No – and follow it up with an offer to explore other ways of meeting the needs behind the request.


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