People pleasing

How to stop saying yes, when you mean no

December 4, 2023

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‘’You just need to grow a thicker skin’’

‘’Just say no, it’s a complete sentence’’ 

‘’Just be more assertive’’

Are these things you have been told in the past? If so, there is nothing wrong with you, and you aren’t alone. All these ‘justs’, which seem so easy for others to do and say, but fill you with shame and dread. 

But why is it such a problem? Because People pleasing is getting in your way, and it’s deadly serious. It sounds fluffy and cuddly, just being a nice person, but it’s not either of those. 

Intuitively Quiet Leaders know what other people need, and are great at figuring it out even and before they do – what your boss or CEO needs for a brief for instance. You so easily put yourself in their shoes and thoughtfully make it so incisive, easily understandable and concise. 

And helping people, making a difference gives you joy – ‘saying yes’ to the extra responsibility, the project, drafting the proposal. The appreciation for the job well done.

And all of that is great, it’s what has made you so successful, respected, liked. 

Until you stop considering your own needs, make them less important than others’ needs, or discount them entirely.

If there’s capacity for all of it, and if it’s within or stretching your skillset then yes might be a no brainer – go for it. But so often nowadays anything additional means re-prioritising or stopping something else – otherwise we and our teams pay the price. Which means there are consequences to the ‘yes’.

And when you automatically say yes this is what the consequences could look like:

  • The briefing is requested at 5pm for the next day, and you have plans for dinner with friends, so you cancel and feel guilty and fearful that they’ll never invite you again.
  • Your team is overstretched, carrying vacancies and the project you said yes to means they’ll be under a lot of pressure. So you’ll do most of it, neglecting your strategy and admin – working long hours, getting tired, and becoming irritable at home.
  • The proposal is outside your area of expertise and would be much better covered by Alice (who says she’s too busy), but it’s really important. So you worry and procrastinate, causing yourself more stress. 

But don’t beat yourself up about saying yes, nor about the messiness you then feel so guilty about, it’s completely understandable if you have a People Pleasing tendency. 

Because, the alternatives at the time feel more difficult – you know no one really wants to hear ‘no’, or work out what needs to drop (isn’t everything important?), or be paused. You know this, so you anticipate disappointment, irritation and resistance. Or worse, outright anger or indignation. And as you are more sensitive, you’re likely to feel their emotions and yours intensely – doubly uncomfortable. 

And actually saying ‘no’ means even more difficult things for Quiet Leaders 

  • Responding very quickly with ‘why’ when we’d prefer to think about and consult on the consequences
  • Negotiating (arguing) about priorities 
  • Conflicting needs – yours, the requester, personal commitments to be cancelled 

And that doesn’t sound so great. A louder more extroverted leader might love a nice stimulating argument – but that’s them and not you – not us Quiet Leaders. It’s exhausting and overwhelming – no wonder a quick ‘yes’ and taking the consequences on yourself feels like the better option. 

But if you keep doing this, anxiety, exhaustion and burnout are the natural result. 

So what to do? If you know saying yes automatically, when you mean no, is something you want to stop, then try these two tips:

  1. Practice giving yourself time. ‘No’ can feel like a step too far, especially without a reason, so try a ‘maybe’ first. 

    Write down whatever sentence feels good to you, that communicates a ‘maybe’ and you can use in most situations. Perhaps “I’ll come back to you tomorrow’ or ‘let me check with the team and come back to you by the end of day’. Practice it in the mirror first, practice it on small low stakes situations next – but practice before you need it. Small steps
  2. What’s underneath your people pleasing habit? The reality is, that there is always an expectation of return with people pleasing, a payback – appreciation or the same in return perhaps? And not getting that unspoken need met can result in resentment and anger. Check out the workbook at the bottom of this page to dig into it some more.