It's Nice to Say "NO!"

07/14/2011 03:38 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2011

I was recently at a motivational event for women. The speaker asked people in the audience to share something special they'd done. One woman said she began to say "no" occasionally. Everyone applauded this feat. Women are known for being overly agreeable. I've encountered many guys who say they also agree to requests much too often. Yet saying "no" should be normal, not an accomplishment!

Saying that one small word -- "no" -- turns into a very big deal for many of us!

In the days I was a people pleasing kind of "nice" girl, I couldn't get that word out. Turning someone down meant possibly losing a friendship, or alienating someone. You might not even like the person but if you want to be liked by EVERYONE, agreeable seems to be the right course. People pleasers think it's nice to never say "no." It seems like the best way to be liked. And they want to be liked. We all do on some level. But saying "yes" at the expense of your own needs and desires isn't nice!

When I was on Oprah, she asked the audience what they preferred -- being liked or being respected? Everyone chose liked. People like you more when you're agreeable! But real friends will like you even if you don't jump when they need something. And colleagues will respect you more when you're not a pushover. You get approval for positive reasons by saying "no" when it feels right.

I finally accepted that I'd still be a nice person if I became more selective about doing favors and that I was entitled to have my needs met too. It meant not putting all my time and energy into others. At first, I proudly forced "no" out. It felt uncomfortable and wasn't well received. What I call poison word darts -- selfish, b*tch, etc -- were hurled at me when I turned down requests. I ran back to the "security" of being agreeable until I realized the manipulation in their words and how unfair it was to call me names just for saying I couldn't help them.

It's okay to say "no" if you have something else to do! I tried new ways to change people's expectations of me by slowly weaning myself away from always being the go-to girl. Being nice starts with being nice to yourself. Saying "no" to others says "yes" to your desires and nice people are entitled to that.

You can stop the people pleasing cycle by turning off agreeable auto-pilot. Long time habits take a while to break. But if you're consistent, you to can give yourself a lot more time by giving less to others. Next time you get asked to help with something you know you don't want to do:

Pause before responding. People pleasers feel they must reply instantly. You don't have to! Even if you may say yes, get into the habit of thinking first. Try to stay as deadpan as possible so they can't read guilt or dismay. They may try to manipulate you if they sense guilt.

Stall. Say you must check your schedule. If she says she needs to know fast, nicely explain you can't respond fast so she may want to find a backup. If she acts like you're not being a friend, ask, with a smile, why she thinks her schedule is more important than yours.

Stall more. Ask for an email to remind you to check your schedule. It gives you some distance from personal reactions. Turning someone down electronically is easier.

Ponder. Ask yourself, "Do I want to do it?" You might want to go the distance for someone who helps you a lot. Be selective as you turn folks down. Don't just stop agreeing to everything. But if agreeing to the request will inconvenience you in stressful ways, and you don't owe the person that kind of consideration, say "no."

Excuse. After you've waited, say you can't do it. Waiting helps the person get used to your not always saying "yes." It forces them to think of alternatives to having you do what they need. Even if you say "yes," they'll see they can't automatically count on you.

Selectively agree when it works for you. I may not be liked by as many people since I started saying "no," but I'm a lot more respected, and a lot happier with the people in my world who like me for me, not for what I do for them. It's nice to say "no" to what you don't want to do. As long as you treat people with courtesy, nice people have the right to say "no," sans guilt.