Tools for No … The Pause

(from my soon-to-be-published book, Just One Step: The Journey to Your Unstoppable You)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the challenges of no – that “yes” is easy and that boundaries (“no”) are hard. In response, I had several people tell me that it’s so true for them and they asked me to share more about ways to get better at saying no. This week I’m offering you the first of four “no” tools, and I’ll share the other three “no” tools over the next few weeks.

Given all the difficulties with no, I’ve found it helpful to use a few “no tools” to help you in setting boundaries and uttering that ugly, two-letter word “no.” These tools will not eliminate the various challenges to the no, but they’ll help you navigate a world where you’re being constantly called upon for a resounding yes. There are four essential tools to support you on your journey from yes to no.

  1. Pause
  2. Keep it clear and simple (and without three specific words)
  3. I choose to …
  4. Not now

Each one of these tools will help you enhance your no muscle and, collectively, they’ll work together to support you in your journey to saying no. This week we’ll focus on The Pause!

The pause tool is just what it sounds like – it’s simply training yourself to pause before responding to someone who’s asking you to do something, get involved or take responsibility for something. Actually, there’s two parts to the pause tool, and the first one is easy – take a breath. What are you talking about, Jeff? Take a breath is your advice? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying because when we’re asked to do something or “help out” (those dreaded words), for most of us our immediate reaction is to say yes, even if our immediate thought and want is to say no.

Think about it – when someone asks us to do something, a warning bell usually goes off in our heads. “Danger Will Robinson.” Someone is asking you to give up some of your time and freedom, and your defenses go up. Yet, most of the time the no in our thoughts comes out of our mouth as yes. Why? Because our unconscious reaction (which is where all of your doubts, worthiness questions, insecurities, fears of rejection and need for acceptance live) slips out before we have the time to be thoughtful and discerning. If you’re like me, you’ve had many out of body experiences where you want to say no, yet you hear yourself saying yes (even as your conscious mind is screaming “Nnnnnnoooooooo”).

By taking a breath (the first step) you create space for the pause – initially a brief pause, which then paves the way for a conscious and negotiated pause. The breath is what will keep that yes from leaping out of your mouth and allow you space to think about what you really want. The breath is what will slow down your automatic (and unconscious) response and allow you space for the thoughtful (and conscious) response. The breath is the bridge to answering the question (yes or no) on purpose, rather than by default.

Now let’s look at the pause, which can be either a momentary pause or a longer-term pause. However, the initial pause is the key to the longer pause. While the pause can vary depending on the nature of the question and the significance of what’s being asked, the key is to find the pause so that you can slow down and minimize the reactive answer (which is usually the yes). One thing to note up front is that the pause must be accompanied with either a quick response (with the short pause) or a clear commitment to a future response (with the longer pause). I’ll talk more about this commitment element below. Another essential element is to remember that the pause is often followed by clarifying questions to help you better understand what exactly is being requested and, critically, assess the personal impact of a yes (e.g. impact on time, focus, energy, or other priorities).

Here’s an example of a momentary pause:

  • Question: Can you help out with the team’s fundraising campaign?
  • Immediate (unconscious) Response: Absolutely. Happy to help! [You’re now in without even knowing what you’ve committed to. You can try to clarify or minimize your yes after the fact, but you’ve already said yes.]
  • Question: Can you help out with the team’s fundraising campaign?
  • Breath and Pause …
  • Clarifying Questions: I do think the fundraising campaign is important. Where do you think I can be helpful, and in what specific ways would you like me to be involved?

It seems too simple and easy, but the truth is that most of our yes’s jump out of us before we’ve really thought through what’s being asked, what’s expected and, most important, what’s the impact in your life. 

The longer pause usually follows the short pause (and the questions that you ask along with it) and is designed to give you time to be thoughtful and intentional. As noted above, it requires a clear commitment so that the asker knows that the pause is temporary (and not an escape hatch).

  • Question: Can you help out with the team’s fundraising campaign?
  • Breath and Pause … 
  • Clarifying Questions: I do think the fundraising campaign is important. In what ways do you think I can be helpful and what specific ways would you like me to be involved?
  • Answer to Clarifying Questions
  • Thoughtful Response: When I get involved in things, I’m all in, and I’ve learned that people often say yes without being ready to fully commit. I appreciate the invitation to be a part of this campaign, and I want [not need] a little bit of time before I can commit the way I’m sure you want me to.
  • Clear Commitment: I commit to getting back to you with either additional questions or an answer within the next forty-eight hours. If you don’t hear back from me by then, please reach out to me again.

This approach allows you to take time to be thoughtful, and it also communicates that you’re taking the question and the request seriously. It also makes it clear that you’re not trying to blow the person off because they’ll get a clear answer in the short term. While not everyone will like this (they want a clear yes and they want it now), it’s very difficult for most people not to respect your response. I’ll talk more below about one of the reasons that people may seem not to respect your no in an upcoming blog, which will give you an additional tool on your journey to no. This leads us to the second tool, which I’ll share with you next week: keep it clear and simple.

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