How do you say no?

post by LoganStrohl (BrienneYudkowsky) · 2013-10-04T03:44:12.712Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

Some people seem to be a bit too generous for their own good. I know a precious few people who are especially good at saying "no" when asked to take on new responsibilities that would put them over their limits. I love working with people like that because I can always trust them to tell me when it would be better for me to find someone else to do the thing. I expect this to be an extremely valuable skill it would probably be good for many of us to understand, learn, and be able to teach to people who really need it.

If you frequently find yourself overburdened, think it's not entirely necessary for you to be doing as much as you are, and can recall a specific instance in the last month where someone asked you to do something and you accepted against your better judgement, I invite you to describe what you were feeling and thinking at the time.

Alternately, if you're an unusually busy and productive person who nevertheless is good at saying "no", I'd like to hear about
  1. a specific example of a time when you said no to new responsibility, what was going on in your head, and how it felt
  2. how exactly you believe you decide whether to take on or reject prospective responsibilities if you have an explicit model
  3. whether you consider yourself more or less empathetic or compassionate than average
  4. whether there was ever a time when you had that "don't know how to say no" problem, and if so what changed


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by hyporational · 2013-10-06T07:06:43.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I refused to basically run a 40 patient geriatrics unit alone when I had zero experience. I confronted my superior, told him that I felt incompetent for the job and he ended up consulting me every day, like he should have in the first place. That was an easy call, I was scared shitless.

I've never had a problem with saying no and don't understand at all why other people do. I consider myself much less compassionate/symphathetic than average, i.e. don't feel other peoples emotions. My empathy is pretty intact though.

Just begin with sorry...

  • but I don't think it's fair to the patients if some zero experience know-nothing just wings it there because a senior doctor is jaded in his job.
  • but my hands are full at the moment.
  • but I already have other plans, maybe some other time?
  • but I'm really not that ambitious.
  • but X really isn't my thing.

If those don't work, I come up with a white lie. If they keep pushing it, I have no problem with being blunt.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-04T08:47:54.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

tl;dr: Collecting data to show that my time expended at work badly mismatched my personal priorities forced me to start saying "no" in certain clearly defined circumstances.

I was utterly inable to say "no" but forced myself to learn when I realised that taking on too many things from others was getting in the way of projects I wanted to focus on, and impeding my career progression. I am less empathetic and compassionate than average, for sure, and probably inability to say "no" has been a reaction to that.

What made me decide to start saying "no": Taking complete stock of the various things I was working on, approximate time spent on each (one month of diary studies, every time I switched task I noted the previous task and its duration). At the same time I wrote up a list of my main tasks, ranked in terms of their priority to me. At the end of the diary period I matched up the durations to my main priorities, and discovered huge, huge mismatches. Mainly, letting my big priorities slip and spending far too much time on things that were way less important to me.

Most of my biggest time sinks were in doing things for other students or researchers in our extended group, on topics where I am indisputably the expert. But stepping back and looking at the data made me realise that I was taking on lots of work because I wasn't willing to accept the short-term costs associated with delegation and training. The long term costs: not only was I burning a lot of my time on mundane programming, analysis, etc., I was starting to get a reputation as someone who couldn't delegate, didn't write papers, didn't develop independent projects.

I introduced "No" without warning, letting everyone know I was going to switch my strategy to a more training-based one. Instead of "hand me your data and I give you the results later", I shifted to "Try it out and come to me when you get stuck". So it's not 100% "no" as I am still around as a safety net, and in solving specific problems it's very easy to explain why. The real advantage is that now some of the people who developed intermediate skills can provide support for the beginners, which also helps with group cohesion. I probably still don't say "no" often enough, but my most recent diary study (3mo ago) suggests better correspondence with my personal priorities.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-05T21:47:00.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is two separate issues. The first is being aware of how much you can actually manage. The second is having the capability to refuse requests.

For Issue 2, here's a rule of thumb:

If you find yourself wishing they hadn't asked you in the first place, you should probably say no.

That way you'll be able to distinguish situations from when you actually think you should assist vs. when you feel obligated. (If you actually think you need to assist, you should. Don't go the opposite direction of always saying no.) Also, this advice assumes you aren't playing any signalling games.

I'd say it is a matter of noticing apprehension at the prospect of saying yes, and listening to it.

comment by jetm · 2013-10-04T06:04:37.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do have a bit of a problem saying no, largely, I think because I 'respect' authority too much. For example, right now I am the only person working on a series of projects, the sort of which an entire team normally handles. But now everyone's depending on me, so it's too late to back out.

However, I say no a lot more than I used to, and it is amazing.

  1. A while ago, I found myself working 12-14 hour days for a week due to training. I spent the evenings working on a research paper for class. The Monday after this week, there was going to be a completely voluntary oral test. Passing this gets you nothing but shinyness for your record. The list of topics it covered was very long and vague. We learned about it about ten days in advance.

I, being an idiot who says volunteers for everything, volunteered for it despite everything else going on. After two days, I managed to cram the first three subjects out of 20 or so, truly comprehending very little of it. At that point, I realized that it just wasn't going to happen and told my boss that I wished to withdraw. His response was something along the lines of "That's probably a good idea." It didn't really feel like anything.

As a second, quick, example. Someone just asked me to critique a lengthy excerpt of her novel. This was very easy to say no to, as it was erotica, which I cannot stand.

  1. Estimate how long it will take, tack on 25% to account for planning fallacy, compare to current schedule and priorities. Another recent thing I said no to would have required at least 4 hours a week for two months, in addition to at least $500.

  2. Both? Thinking about other people suffering is one of my main motivators, but I have trouble feeling anything for people on an individual level.

  3. Yes. Without going into detail, I said 'yes' a few too many times and reaped horrible consequences. Also, it's a lot easier to say no when you primarily associate with people you don't like.

comment by BaconServ · 2013-10-04T04:14:36.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had this problem a lot growing up. It's significantly lessened now, but just the other day I realized I was taking on too many responsibilities because I was stressed about one specific project and was distracting myself from it with other projects that I also procrastinated on. I suppose I was working myself into a position where I had too many projects that any one person could ask me to do any specific one of them; I have all the others to work on. I was able to get myself out of this hole by working on the project that was the main source of the stress.

Prior to this, growing up, there was only one thought that made me agree to anything: "I want to please everyone."

What snapped me out of this was one of the most maturing events in my life: I was told that not doing something for someone might disappoint them, but saying I would and then not doing it would be even more disappointing. That is, the honesty on the matter is more valuable than the emotional response of your agreeing to do it. I mean yes, it's obvious now, but to that kid that wanted to please everyone all the time, it made sense to take on tasks that I really had no actual intent of accomplishing. Convincing yourself that making the promise before making the intent to carry out the promise will result in you making the intent to carry out the promise is all too easy. It's a lot more difficult to commit post-promise-statement than you might think.

comment by Donovanable · 2013-10-04T04:40:32.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I fall into the latter category, so here's my murky model and answers: 1) On two separate occasions, I recall explicitly turning down friends who wanted to create podcasts or writing projects. I was fairly sure I'd enjoy it, had expectations of high quality from the projects, and would have done it under different circumstances (being less busy). My initial feeling was fear of missing out--fear that it would be as fun as I anticipated, and that my reward would be "Well, I did have a chance to do that cool thing everyone else admires!" Later, it was more concern that I'd underestimated my ability to take on the responsibility. It was easier to decline because in both cases, they knew me personally, and I had more trust that they would believe me about being unable to take on more responsibility

2) I don't always use this model, and it could use improvement, but I weigh along stress and time invested. Time: how much practical time do I expect this to take, how well will that adapt to my schedule. (For instance, will it work with being totally unavailable during finals and midterms?) Time can obviously correlate with stress--something that eats into time to finish classes and other projects will inevitably cause stress. But stress also includes how much background noise the responsibility will cause in my life. Will I need to constantly be on the look out for podcast topics? Will I need to moderate comments continuously? Will I need to present myself differently on social media that has previously been simply, well, social? If I need to shift around other projects, will anticipating telling people that make me too anxious?

3) Yes.

4) Yes, up until the last year or so. I changed from a series of events. -Friends and classmates regularly remarked on how busy I was, which made me realize that they would be more open to me saying "No, too busy!" -I started with practical training in my psychological services classes, which involves a lot of learning how to get other people to set their boundaries. It generalized. -I started traveling more regularly, which meant having the easy excuse of being out of town, which meant getting more used to the idea that people took 'no' much more positively than I'd been imagining.

comment by tgb · 2013-10-05T13:58:43.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A related question I asked in the open thread - how do you say no to giving money to beggars?

comment by SatvikBeri · 2013-10-04T17:22:06.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm fairly good at saying no. I would consider myself unusually productive, but not unusually busy...because I'm fairly good at saying no.

  1. At work if a boss asks me to do something that seems interesting but where I don't have time, I'll say something like "I currently have too much on my plate to handle X. These are my priorities, should I drop something to do X?" For example, I recently used this when I was asked to do some market research but didn't have time.

  2. If they ask me to do something I'm not interested, I'll say "I'm not very good at X, but (person B) is. I'd be happy to take something off their plate if they can handle X." I recently used this when asked to do several programming tasks I wasn't particularly interested in or good at.

  3. If the boss insists on me doing X that I'm not interested in, or on getting everything done, I'll say something like "I can handle it this time as a special case, but we need to work out a different solution going forward."

  4. If a friend asks me I'm much more blunt-I'll explicitly say that I'm not really interested. E.g. one of my friends recently asked me to help organize an event, and I told them I really dislike logistics work.

Overall in all of these situations I felt slightly guilty. I like being helpful and would prefer to contribute.

  1. I receive a lot of requests, so I default to rejecting responsibilities. I generally accept them only if they seem particularly interesting or valuable.

  2. Less empathetic/compassionate than average

  3. Yes. Mostly I just learned political skills so that I could say no politely.

comment by solipsist · 2013-10-04T14:26:40.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love working with people like that because I can always trust them to tell me when it would be better for me to find someone else to do the thing.

That is the key quote. I'm a Hufflepuff, and hurting other people is The Worst Thing. Saying "no" isn't nice, but overpromising is much, much worse.