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Q and A with Steve

You said recently, “It’s always been easy for me to say no in business if I felt a situation called for it, but at home I was often lost. When I wanted to say no because I felt that, for example, a particular expenditure was wrong or because my children wanted to do something that I didn’t think they should do, I’d find myself pussyfooting around the situation, just placing myself as the frog in the pan again and again. Afraid to say no, I’d either say it was okay or I’d briefly say no and then give in and say yes, even if I still felt that I wanted to say no.”


Why is it harder to say no to some people than to others?


Can you give some specific pointers on how to get better at saying no?


As co-owner of a real estate investment company with employees who report to me, often I’m asked to make a yes-or-no decision, and, when I think a no decision is the better one, I’ve never had a problem saying no.


If someone suggests a business practice that I think won’t be effective or that I simply don’t like, I’ll say no. If someone wants to buy or sell a property and I think the deal is unwise, I’ll say no. If I’m negotiating for a property and the price the owner wants is greater than I think the property is worth, I’ll say no. The same with an employee asking for a large raise if I think that the employee hasn’t earned it or that at that time it would be unwise for our company to give a raise of that magnitude.


In my business life, the criteria for saying yes or no are always very clear to me: Will doing the thing that I’m being asked to make a decision about be good for the business or bad for the business? Is it something that is in keeping with my integrity or out of alignment with my integrity?


Not only are these criteria very clear to me, I also immediately know the answer. I don’t even need to think about it. As soon as the question is asked, I know right away when I need to say no. And because it’s so clear to me, no matter how much I like the person who’s brought me the issue I have to decide on, I have no trouble saying no. And if he or she asks me to explain why I’m saying no, I can do it easily.


It’s a completely different story with people that I’m close to in my personal life. In many situations, I’ve found it impossible to say no—at least to say no and stick with it—to my ex-wife, my children, and, after my divorce, to women that I was romantically involved with. Even if I was clear that a no decision was the right one—for example, that a certain expenditure for the household was greater than we could afford or that an elaborate birthday party or piece of clothing or a particular car was inappropriately expensive for one of the children—I would become overwhelmed by anxiety, and the fact that saying no was the right decision would be less important than doing what I felt was necessary to keep the other person happy.


Of course, this makes no sense in the long run because a wrong decision always catches up to you. You always have to pay bills eventually, and if the bills are higher than what you can comfortably afford, you have to figure out a way to do it, which generally means sacrificing something else. If you buy a child or a teenager something that’s more expensive than is appropriate for a person of that age, he or she is going to continue expecting things that are more expensive than are appropriate. But even knowing that no would be the right and responsible decision didn’t make me say no and commit to it.


What made me act so irrationally? What made me act in a way that was against my self-interest and the interest of the other person whom I cared for so much? Why was saying no so easy for me to do at work and so hard for me to do at home?


The reason comes down to what I refer to as my machinery and my programming. In my book My Mind Is Not Always My Friend: A Guide for How to Not Get in Your Own Way, I define machinery as the workings of our minds when our minds are operating on automatic pilot—that is, when we’re not conscious and in the present—and our programming as the software, developed in childhood as survival techniques, that, when we’re not conscious and in the present, determine our responses to specific situations.


As a child, I had two powerful experiences that shaped my programming and eventually put me into an emotional blur when I was put into a situation of saying yes or no to someone very close to me. The first experience was the traumatic loss of my father, who died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eleven. This made me feel that at any moment, I could be abandoned by someone I love. The second powerful experience was that I saw my mother cut off members of her family with whom she had conflicts; if someone disagreed with her, suddenly that person was gone from my life!


These two experiences made my child’s mind fearful that at any moment, someone I love very much would just vanish, especially if there was a conflict. Unconsciously, perhaps I also didn’t know if it was my fault that my father died, and, again unconsciously, I may have believed that if I’d done something differently, he wouldn’t have died, that this cherished person would have continued living and continued taking care of me.


From the fact that my mother cut off people with whom she had conflicts, I developed a conscious belief that the way to have people you love stay in your life was to agree to give them everything they wanted; if you didn’t disagree with them, they wouldn’t abandon you.


With this belief, and with my father absent, as a child I believed that my job was to take care of my mother, and I interpreted taking care of her as giving her what she wanted and doing what she wanted and what I perceived she needed. After a while, I didn’t even know what I wanted anymore for myself, except that I didn’t want her to cut me off as she had done to her family, to abandon me as my father had done by dying.


As an adult, I had a tremendous fear of abandonment, and every time a situation would come up that involved a potential conflict, confrontation, or disagreement with someone I loved, my machinery would automatically become activated and I’d become overwhelmed by fear. I felt that if I said no and stuck to it, the person I loved and felt I needed would cut me off and abandon me. I would be alone.


As a child, I needed my mother to survive, and in order to keep her, I avoided conflicts with her by never saying no to her; as an adult, I brought with me this feeling of needing the people I loved in order to survive, and I also brought with me the mistaken belief that the only way to have them not abandon me was never to say no to them, even if I felt that saying yes was the wrong decision and that it was not in alignment with my integrity.


Sometimes I avoided confrontations by not really defining my position. In my heart, I knew my decision was no, but fearing a conflict, I would say something vague like “I’ll think about it,” or I wouldn’t address it at all, hoping that the issue would go away before I had to give an answer. This really doesn’t work!


First of all, the other person may interpret your lack of a definite stance as a yes, and that can lead to a confrontation down the road or to your agreeing to it because you find your cowardly passivity has backed you into a corner. Secondly, if you decide to take a stance later and say no because the issue is so important to you that you just can’t say yes, the other person can accuse you of going back on your word or being a liar because, again, he or she has interpreted your response as a yes.


If you have a problem saying no, the first step to becoming better at saying no when it’s appropriate is to learn to recognize why it’s a problem for you. What is activating your machinery? What are the beliefs and assumptions in your machinery? What is causing you to be fearful about saying no?


I took this first step when, through therapy, I realized that every time I felt I should say no to a person I love, unconsciously I was afraid that saying no would mean I’d be abandoned. With this recognition, I realized that the anxiety I felt in such situations was caused by an inauthentic fear—a fear that feels as if it’s related to survival but is actually not about survival; it’s just left over as a result of a dysfunctional pattern developed in childhood.


This helped me take the second step, which is the recognition that you have the power to act despite your fears and that if you give in to inauthentic fears and say yes when you want to say no, you are not coming from your integrity. Not only does this feel bad because you sense that you’re doing something that’s not truthful to who you are, it’s often bad for the other person, too, and it’s bad for your relationship.


“Buying love”—whether literally with money or by doing something that you don’t want to do—isn’t good if you want a relationship to thrive. A thriving relationship needs both people to communicate and act with integrity, and a conflict can be an opportunity for growth in a thriving relationship.


If you have a problem saying no, the solution lies in:


  1. Making the commitment to becoming aware of how your machinery works with regard to this issue.
  2. Backing up this commitment with your will to transform yourself so that you remain aware and interrupt your machinery to make a conscious choice


Recognizing when and why your machinery is being activated in situations where you have trouble saying no, and becoming aware of the negative consequences of allowing your machinery to run you on automatic pilot based on past programming, motivates you to interrupt your machinery and make the conscious choice to say no when you need to and to stick to it. Even if saying no makes you anxious, remember that thriving relationships can withstand and grow from disagreements and that if you say yes when your integrity tells you that you need to say no, you are undermining not only yourself but also the very relationship that you value.


Do you have a question for Steve? Feel free to Tweet him @StevenJFogel

  • 2 Jul, 2013
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 3 Tags

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