We have all said yes when we knew better, and mostly the impact is as meaningless as eating an hors d’oeuvre just to be polite. But sometimes the impact is life-changing: saying yes to a marriage, a job, or a home that doesn’t feel right. Eventually, those mistakes become glaringly obvious. To others you can claim innocence. But in hindsight, if you are truly honest with yourself, you always knew better.
We have strong instincts when someone is not being forthright, for example. If the person you are speaking to is hiding their anger, your heart rate increases, research shows. Yet the problem comes when we ignore these instincts: We rely on our logical and reasoning mind instead. And the mind betrays us too easily. After all, you can talk yourself into anything, whether it’s an abusive relationship or a terrible deal on a car.
We say yes when we mean no for many reasons: to impress, to avoid conflict, to be nice, to conform, or because we feel helpless. But many of us say yes because we’ve never learned to say no, to stand our ground and to assert our boundaries. As a consequence, we’ve never learned the most profound form of self-respect there is: listening to ourselves and acting accordingly. But there are ways to do so.
Research shows that if you negotiate on behalf of a friend, you will likely negotiate harder and get a better deal—especially if you are a woman. So Kristin Neff, the foremost researcher on self-compassion who also wrote a book on the topic, argues that you should treat yourself as a friend—you’ll be more understanding, respectful, and kind to yourself. You’ll also get a better deal.
In a situation in which you would rather say no—for example, when your boss piles on an additional commitment—imagine for a moment that you are speaking on behalf of a friend. Bring to mind all the ways in which saying yes might harm your friend’s personal goals (e.g., overcommitment, more pressure, less sleep) and all the ways saying no will help your friend reach their goals. Chances are, you will be able to stand your ground with greater ease and confidence.
Self-compassion will also help you go a little easier on yourself. Women, in particular, tend to blame themselves when they fail and attribute their successes to other people and circumstances. They may say yes because they feel like they “should” do something and—when they find themselves overcommitted—blame themselves for not being able to live up to the expectation.
Reduce Your Stress in the Moment
Another reason we say yes is that we feel so uncomfortable saying no that our emotions (e.g., embarrassment, guilt, or shyness) overwhelm us. Research shows that when we have a strong emotional reaction, our ability to think clearly is compromised. In that moment, we defer to the most impulsive, obvious, and easy answer: yes. One way to avoid this impulsivity is to take a deep breath. This sounds cliché, but it’s powerful.
Research I conducted with veterans with trauma shows that just the simple act of breathing can help calm you down. When you are calmer, you are able to make better decisions, to be more emotionally intelligent, to communicate more effectively, and to think more clearly. When you breathe out slowly, you can calm your heart rate and your blood pressure. As a consequence, you may regain some steadiness of mind and composure. Thinking about your breathing helps you shift your attention to something you can control. In that moment, you regain some self-confidence and you get back in touch with your own needs.
Just because someone else wants an immediate response is no reason you have to answer immediately. You have a right to deflect, defer, and consider. This sentence is your friend: “Let me think about this—I’ll get back to you.” Delivered with a smile, this gives you time to sit with the proposition, to discuss it with friends, to see how it feels to your heart.
Shift the Focus to the Other Person
Former dominatrix, Kasia Urbaniak devotes herself to teaching influence and persuasion through connection to others. She shares that shifting your attention to the other person, rather than dwelling in your own emotional discomfort, can help you gain time and composure. If someone asks you a question that you are not comfortable answering, shoot them a few questions yourself—related or totally unrelated: “Why do you ask?” or “Where did you buy those shoes?” or “Have you had lunch?” Keep probing if you need more time, she suggests. Pepper them with questions while you take time to think.
Research by Amy Cuddy at Harvard, best-selling author of Presence, shows that even just adopting a powerful pose (hands on hips, chest broad) can help you feel more powerful.
Identify a Skillful No
Say no in such a way that brings the other party to your side. For example, “As much as I would like to help you / take on this new job / date you, given my other priorities I wouldn’t be able to carry this out in a way that would do you justice.” And that would be the truth. Saying no is not just a self-preserving skill, it is one that liberates others. It models a way of being that is profoundly respectful of oneself and others, because it is honest. While they might not like your no, they will be grateful, over time, to know where they stand.
Emma Seppälä, PhD, is author of The Happiness Track, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project.
This article first appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine.