It’s difficult to refuse a request from a friend or colleague at the best of times—and paradoxically, it’s most difficult when you’re anxious because you feel overloaded already. This is because anxiety floods reason, and the desire to please overrides any systematic appraisal of what’s actually possible.
However, if you take on more responsibilities when you’re already busy, you’ll only increase your anxiety and end up getting even less done. It’s vital, therefore, to learn to say no firmly and clearly, yet in a way that causes minimal offence. Here are three steps to help:
1. Buy time
When faced with a request from someone you like, it’s more or less impossible to say no on the spot. We all want to please the people who matter most to us, especially when we’re feeling anxious and therefore in need of approval. However, if you say yes to something that you can’t easily manage, before long either your exhaustion or your resentment will become apparent. You then risk creating a strained relationship between you and the person who made the request, and this is likely to make you feel worse than if you’d said no in the first place. It’s better to wait until your emotions have settled and you can consider the request realistically. Therefore, instead of answering straight away, buy time. For example, say: “Thanks for asking me. I’ll need to check my diary and then I’ll get back to you.” Wait for at least an hour - a day is even better - before you reply. This allows time for emotions to settle so you can look at the request logically. Then if it looks like you can realistically take on the added responsibility, let them know. If on the other hand, you’ve realised the request will overload you, take the next step.
2. Keep it simple
If you appear indecisive or hesitant when you turn down a request, whoever made that request will probably try to talk you out of your uncertainty. If instead you turn down the request kindly but simply, without offering excuses, then there will be nothing for the two of you to discuss. It’s best to say simply: “Thanks again for asking me but unfortunately I have to say no.” If you then feel an overwhelming desire to justify yourself, take a slow deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, smile, and change the subject. If this approach seems too daunting, make use of step three.
3. Create distance
Not many people find it easy to say no to someone face to face. If you feel you can’t refuse a request in person, send an email or text or leave a phone message. Remember, however, to keep it simple. Thank them, but then refuse. No explanations. In the long run, your relationships will be happier and healthier if you take on only what you can manage well, rather than overloading yourself in an anxious effort to please.