I have always struggled with people pleasing. I do not like the feeling of disappointing or letting anyone down, which often means I say yes to projects and activities when I should say no. The fear of upsetting someone in that moment often causes more discomfort, disappointment, and frustration than if I would have said no from the start.
I watched this take place recently with one of our horses, Ajax. The individual was working with Ajax, and Ajax was growing comfortable in the relationship--almost too comfortable. As the relationship progressed, Ajax put his mouth against the arm of the individual. I asked the individual if they were comfortable with Ajax's teeth being so close to their arm. They said, "yes, that's what he wants." I pushed back a little and said, "you know what's on the other side of those lips, right?" We both laughed, and the relationship work continued on for a little while longer. Ajax's mouth on his friend's arm began to progress to playful nibbles, then a little more and more, all while checking in on the level of comfort with the human. There was a bit of hesitation in telling Ajax no. I could see the tension building. No matter how uncomfortable the human was, they could not say no. Eventually, Ajax chomped down. The quick reflex from the human resulted in a swing of the arm in an attempt to get Ajax away. Ajax, our "mild mustang," responded immediately and moved away--what just happened with this human? Their new reaction to the behavior they once tolerated caused a bit of a disruption in the connection with Ajax. For the next little bit, the two had to work on repairing the relationship, and Ajax was very timid to come back around the human, and the human, understandably, was nervous to be bitten again. (No one was hurt, except maybe a little embarrassment and a slight discomfort on their arm.)
As the two worked to repair the relationship, I stopped to think about the pattern that just emerged. At the beginning of the friendship between Ajax and this human, there was a pleasing/winning others over (WOO) that kicked into gear for the human. WOO, which is a great strength for this individual that quickly became the thing that caused them quite a bit of pain and discomfort. I had to wonder, if the individual had been able to say no at the beginning of Ajax's little playful mouthing of their sleeve, would they have been able to avoid the disruption from the bite? As we explored that in the session, the concern for the human was that asking Ajax to stop would damage the relationship beyond repair. I pushed back a bit and said, "And how did the biting impact your relationship? It appears that we ended up with a disruption, pain for your arm, and now we have to spend time repairing the relationship."
Following the session, I began to wrestle with this on a personal and professional level. How can we work on saying no and eliminating the guilt that is associated with it?
Let me get back to you: I have found that I often struggle with saying no when I am so busy, and in the heat of the moment, I say yes. I can say yes without taking a look at the ripple effects of the yes. Dr. Stephen Covey says, "When you say yes to something, you are also saying no to something else." Creating that tiny bit of space can allow you to look at the big picture, weigh out the pros/cons, and then make a more fully informed decision. Next time someone asks you to do something, simply respond with "Let me get back to you" to create some space for your decision. In this situation with Ajax, I believe if we had stepped away from Ajax to think about the mouth on the arm, the individual would have had the mental and emotional space to problem solve a little more effectively. Being in the presence of Ajax made it harder to make the decision that was best for self. For those who struggle to say no, this simple strategy of walking to another room away from the individual can help to take a little bit of the pressure off and allow us to make a more informed decision, instead of a pressured decision.
Be honest and direct: In the situation with Ajax, the individual was reluctant and worried they would damage the relationship if they said they did not like something at the beginning--and in the end, they got bit! If we allow a relationship to unfold with things that we do not like or feel comfortable with, then my thought is... aren't we building this relationship on a lie? I am presenting one way externally, while internally I am feeling a different way. How well do relationships work out if their foundation is a lie? This is a bit of a punch to the gut for me.
Establish your priorities: When I am unclear on my priorities, I can find myself compromising, adjusting, and saying yes to things that are not in alignment with what I truly prioritize. This topic needs to be explored in a blog by itself, but for now, can you list priorities for you on both the personal and professional levels? Then when something is asked of you, you can compare that request to your priorities.
Practice saying no: For those of us who struggle to say no, it is important to practice this skill in small ways. "No thanks" can be tough at times, but when we are able to practice implementing this skill in those small areas, we can improve our ability to implement the skill in more high-pressure situations.
Be prepared for the push-back: I already know that when I begin saying no, I will immediately get push-back because these relationships I have established have been accustomed to me always saying yes. I need to be prepared for them to push back a little more or to be surprised by my "no." This does not mean it is wrong or that I have damaged the relationship beyond repair. It is simply different... and different is OK.