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How to say no. Nicely

Last week I discussed JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. You should live your life on your own terms, not caught up in the priorities of others. Many of you then asked me: but how do I say no so often? It can be considered rude to decline invitations. I may lose my friends or damage my network.

So let’s think about saying no.

First, picture yourself saying no to most demands on your time. This means the vast majority of social functions, meetings and gatherings. Can you see yourself doing it? Or is the call to attend too strong? If the latter, read no further. If you genuinely enjoy interacting with others often, and feel it is your duty to be present wherever you can when your people are gathering, please ignore today’s column. You are most likely an extrovert who gathers energy from others, and there is nothing wrong with that. Enjoy the interactions and networking – it works for you.

If, however, you actually want to cut down on the socialising and the attendances, and feel you need more time to focus on your own priorities, keep reading.

Start with how serious you are about saying no. The truth is, many people will feel at least a little offended. It’s natural to feel rejection when someone declines your invitation, or indicates they can’t make time for you. Those who know you well might be forgiving; the rest may harbour some ill-will or wounded feelings.

Does this bother you? If it does, again, stop reading. Saying no is often a path to unpopularity. Don’t take it unless you have the resolve. If you can’t act on the intention of saying no, it is better not to cause unnecessary distress in your life.

That should now leave only those of you who actually feel the imperative of focusing your life’s scarce time on things that really matter to you. Your only concern is how to say no. Nicely.

Greg McKeown has some tips for you in his excellent book, Essentialism. He advises: if you have the moral clarity that saying no often is right for you, then be firm and resolute – but also graceful.

In other words, don’t be the jerk who enjoys saying no – to signal your superiority over the person inviting you, or because you actually enjoy being rude. If that’s you, please stop reading. Today’s column wasn’t meant for you.

Grace is the way to say no properly. McKeown gives some important pointers. First, separate the decision to say no from the relationship with the person you are saying no to. You are denying an event, not the person. Your relationship, if important, should continue in other ways. Second, explain why you are saying no – and be as honest as possible. It could be that you are over-committed; it could be because you have cut unnecessary socialising out of your life. You need to have the strength to say this wherever possible. An ‘honest no’ is better than an ‘insincere yes’ – most people say they’ll make it when they know very well they won’t.

I say no a lot. I don’t do it in order to reject the activities of others; I don’t do it to create scarcity or to signal value. I do it simply because I need to be true to myself. My younger self said yes a lot – and that was OK, because youth is a time to try things out and have a multiplicity of experiences. My older self, however, has filtered out the unnecessary to let the necessary breathe and thrive. I make no apology for this; nor am I rude about it. Time is my scarcest resource, and I will only expend it on the things that matter most to me.

I take inspiration from the remarkable management thinker Peter Drucker’s response (quoted in Essentialism) to the very accomplished psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who had asked him to be interviewed for his book on creativity. Drucker sent a very polite letter saying that productivity mattered a great deal to him, and ‘productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.’

Csikszentmihalyi not only took it very well, he even quoted the letter verbatim.

(Sunday Nation, 2 June 2019)

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