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When Someone Won't Take No for an Answer

Nov 04, 2019

Two girls work at office and talkingYou don't have to cave. You don't have to get upset. But you may have to stand taller and be firmer than you're used to. Spoiler alert: It's worth it.

The 7 tips I'm about to share came straight out of personal experience. So I know they work. I firmly believe they'll work for you too. 

7 Tips for Handling a Boundary-Buster

It starts out innocent enough. Someone asks you to serve on a committee, spearhead a new project, or take over an existing project.

You don't want to do it. You're not feeling called to do it. You're not feeling it at all. So you tell the person no thanks and you think that's the end of it. 

Then it starts: the guilt, the subtle manipulation, the twisting of your words, anything to avoid hearing your well-worded "No."

Tip #1: See it as a test. 

Maybe even as a game. Not in the sense of playing games—but challenge yourself to stay calm. I have a large refrigerator magnet that might help here. It says "Stand Your Ground, It's Sacred."

Tip #2: Consider the source. And the delivery.

Example: You get an email from someone you barely know, asking if you'll give Bob a ride to Florida. Bob's copied in on the request. You don't know him either.

Call it a lack of professionalism, call it manipulation, call it whatever you want. The point is, sometimes a request rubs you the wrong way for a reason. Being able to put your finger on it helps you stand firm.

Tip #3: Trust your gut. 

This is not the time to rationalize "But I'm driving to Florida anyway." If you want to drive Bob to the conference in Florida, go for it. But it's wildly okay if you don't.

Tip #4: Ask yourself "How would (so and so) handle this?"

Chances are you've got someone in your life who handles these things like a pro. It helps to think about how they would respond and do as they would do. 

For me it's a friend I'll call John. Super-nice guy but also confident and unflappable. He doesn't waste energy.

Tip #5: Say what you need to the first time. 

Whether it's by email or in person, make it clear in a kind way you've made up your mind.

You don't have to use those exact words, but notice the use of past tense (you have made up your mind).

This sends the message that the matter isn't up for discussion—it isn't something you're "thinking about" or "will" be doing. 

You've made the decision to pass on the request. A reasonable person will accept this. 

Tip #6: Say little if anything else.

And don't be dismayed if your no is dismissed. It happens. See it as part of the test.

Example: Not long ago, someone sent me a request on par with the driving-Bob-to-Florida example. "Bob" was copied in. I hit Reply (not Reply All) and gave a polite but firm no. 

About an hour later I received a follow-up request.

I just wasn't okay with anything about it—from the timing to the tone to the refusal to take no, and the copying in of yet another third party. 

So I did what my friend John would do and let that ping pong ball go right off the edge of the table.

Which is to say, I didn't respond. And that leads us to our final point.

Tip #7: Ask yourself "Who owns the problem?" 

Figuratively speaking, it wasn't my role to make sure Bob got to Florida. Likewise, is it really your role to ...

  • confront the boss on behalf of the group
  • coordinate the office social
  • pick up your co-worker's slack (again)
  • take a church acquaintance to her doctor appointments

You can be compassionate toward others without being responsible for them. This isn't a lack of love, it's a higher form of love. Boundaries always are.

P.S. In case you missed it, be sure to check out my earlier post How to Say No Politely


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