A common theme in my work with clients is boundaries and feeling empowered to establish and communicate those boundaries with important people in their lives. If you’ve ever had to start over in the way you communicate with someone you’ve been in a relationship with for an extended time, you know this is hard work.
In fact, most people won’t do the work because it is daunting and scary, or they are afraid of ruining the relationship, whether that’s with a significant other, partner, sibling, coworker, friend, parent, etc.
There are many pieces to healthy communication in a relationship; the one I want to focus on today is how saying no can strengthen your relationships. For most of us, we want people we are in a relationship with to be giving, accommodating, helpful, and generous, and we want to be that way ourselves. Knowing you can rely on someone in these ways establishes trust. Being able to say no deepens that trust.
As I work with clients, and we get to the place where we start to talk about saying no to people they value and care about, they get incredibly uncomfortable, slippery, resistant, and scared. They want to have healthy boundaries that honor who they are and what they are able to comfortably bring to a relationship, and they want their relationships to be happy and easeful.
They find it hard to see that those two can work harmoniously together because they have been in a pattern of people pleasing, not wanting to rock the boat, and it is just plain old hard work to set boundaries and do the work to maintain them.
The Benefits of “No”
It’s true that saying no strengthens relationships and deepens trust, and it is true that it can be hard work, depending on how your relationships have grown over time and how long you’ve been in a relationship. This is why, for so many of us who haven’t developed our no muscle, being able to re-establish new expectations and boundaries with family members and lifelong friends can be daunting (and feel like an incredible uphill climb that may not be worth the work and possible harm to the relationship).
The longer the relationship, the more likely you are to have work to do, and patience and love will need to be practiced by both of you. (Tweet this.)
If it’s a healthy relationship, the other person will be willing to support you and will eventually, if not right away, understand the importance of the work you are doing.
If you’re thinking about how terrible it sounds to have to do this work and don’t know if you’ve got what it takes, think about these five benefits that can and will come in to your relationships:
- When you say no, they will know it is because you are honoring yourself, and you can do it without guilt.
- They know that they can say no and not feel guilty about it, and that you want them to honor themselves.
- When you say yes, they know you really want to do what you said yes to and are all in, instead of their not getting the best of you because you don’t really want to do it.
- It keeps resentment from seeping into the relationship because you can both be honest about your capacity.
- It shows you are invested in the relationship and that means A LOT to people.
Some people want to jump feet first into the deep end when it comes to making changes, and it’s possible that this might work for some. I would caution you on that approach as I believe making small, meaningful and well thought-through changes are more likely to have the kind of impact we really want.
We don’t want to hurt the people we care most about and have them feel like we’ve pulled the rug out from under them. And, trust me when I tell you from experience, you can start to feel seriously hungover pretty quickly when you dive in and try to make too many relationship changes too quickly. We’re wanting to set up patterns, boundaries, and relationships that last a lifetime.
Creating New Expectations
There’s no one right way or formula for exactly how you can start to establish new boundaries in relationships; however, I would like to offer a few suggestions and you can see if any of these sound like a good fit for you and your particular relationship.
Start with one person that you would like to strengthen your relationship with and that you find yourself automatically saying yes to when they make a request. The next time they make a request of you, take some time to think about your answer.
Perhaps you have a friend who asks for your help quite often with school work — listening to him practice speeches, reviewing his written work, or getting help with difficult problems. The next time he asks for your help in this area, you might say, “I need to think about it. I will get back to you tomorrow to let you know if I have the time this week to read your paper.”
Asking for time to think about it is a perfectly normal and appropriate thing to do, and you’ll have given yourself some space to think through whether or not this is something you positively want to help him with. Your answer to him the next day of yes or no will be more in line with what you actually want to do and not an off the cuff answer.
If you have decided that your answer to him will be yes, that you will review his paper, you can still establish firm boundaries around how and when and what amount of time you will give to the project. You could tell him that you can give him 30 minutes of your time on Thursday, or that if he can share his paper with you today you can get it back to him by next Tuesday. It’s important to set up expectations that are reasonable for you and that fit your abilities to really help.
If you have decided that your answer to him will be no, that you will not review his paper, you can explain to him why you are saying no (more in a bit about not explaining your no). You could tell him that you do not have the time to review his paper in the time period that he needs it done, but perhaps if he got it to you at least two weeks before it was due next time, you might be able to make time to help him. Or you could tell him that you are already committed with your time right now and know that you don’t have the energy to devote to being a good reviewer for his paper.
It is also possible to just say no and not give an explanation at all, though this can be much harder for many people and may not fit their style. Some people may be comfortable with a no and not feel the need to offer a reason why, and this is great for them.
Others feel that they want to slowly move into saying no in steps, so they may start with saying no and explaining why so that they are easing others into becoming comfortable with their saying no, perhaps eventually moving to being able to say no without any explanation.
And still others will always want to explain their no. I don’t believe there is one right way to do this. You need to choose what feels good to you.
This one starts the same way as the first. Start with one person that you would like to strengthen your relationship with and that you find yourself automatically saying yes to when they make a request. The next time they make a request of you, explain to them the changes that you are currently working on in your life with regards to setting boundaries and why you are doing it. This will be more appropriate for some relationships than others. If it’s your best friend or your partner, or perhaps your brother, you may want to bring them into the fold and let them know what you are doing so that they can be of support.
After you have explained to them about the work you are doing you can then tell them that you would like to take a day or two to think about their request, or if it is a bigger ask, like going on a vacation together, you can tell them that you need two weeks to think about it, look at your calendar and finances, talk to your partner, etc.
Always make sure that you follow through with what you have said. If you say you will get back to them by Tuesday, be sure that you get back to them by Tuesday. It’s easier to get their support for your self work when they know they can trust what you say and that when you do give them an answer, it has been well thought through and is your real answer, rather than the one you think they want to hear.
When saying your yes or your no, you can go through similar steps as in the first scenario and decide whether or not you’ll explain your yes or no.
Your boss has the habit of asking you to work on and finish projects on very short timelines. Because she is always late starting projects, she is always late getting them to you, and you are the one who has to do the finish work on the projects. This causes you to work late hours, miss important events with your family, and never know what to expect from her. It’s caused grief and frustration for you for many years now.
She’s your boss, so it is incredibly hard and may feel risky to ask for a change in her behavior, but you’ve got to do something different. Overall, you love your job and the kind of work you do, but the inconsistencies and weird hours aren’t something you can continue to tolerate.
You can start by asking your boss if you can have a discussion with her about your performance. Talk to her about the most recent project that was delayed or late getting out, or that got out on time but was incredibly rushed.
Of course context matters, as does the personality and leadership style of your boss; however, most good leaders are open to discussions of performance and how they can support their teammates.
You could say to her, “I have loved the projects I have been working on. They have been fun and challenging, and I really enjoy the team I am working with. I wish I would have had a better product on this last project though. I believe if I could have had two more weeks of lead time, we would have seen better results. Is there something I can do to support you in getting the next project to me a few weeks earlier?”
Note that the above scenario doesn’t require a no to be said by you to your boss, but it is a good first step for starting to relay your boundaries. With some people you may need to up the ante and be more direct after your first try if it doesn’t elicit the change you need to see. Hopefully your boss is one who listens and can read between the lines. You may eventually have to get to the explicit no, though.
These are just a few examples of how you might be able to start conversations with people in your life in order to set up boundaries that feel good to you. These conversations may be challenging and it may be some hard work on your part. The benefits you will reap last a lifetime and lead to healthier, happier, deeper relationships. The work is worth it!
Who might you have your first conversation with?