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Mark Gorkin, LICSWMark Gorkin, LICSW
A Blog about reducing Stress in our lives.

The Final Five "N & N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No" (and Meaning It) - Part III

Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc") Updated: Feb 28th 2013

Part I of this three-part essay, "Why Is It Hard to 'Just Say No'?: Ten Barriers to Asserting Your Individuality, Intentionality, and Integrity," focused on ten psychosocial barriers to affirming priorities, setting boundaries, and saying "No!"

red noPart II presented the first five "N & N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No" (and Meaning It):

1. Clean Up Your Static to Give a Clear Message
2. Be Empathic yet Firm
3. Use Relevant Facts and Place Issue in Context
4. Use Assertive "I"s Not Blaming "You"s
5. Don't Belabor an Apology

And Part III will close out the "N & N Top Ten" and provide some "lagniappe" (a little extra as we'd say in N'Awlins) - tips for even setting limits on the "Big Honcho."

Avoiding the "Drop Everything, It's an Emergency" Trap

Before launching onto the "Final Five," let's lead with the "lagniappe." How do you say no to the "Big Boss" or anyone in a significantly higher authority role? My recommendation of saying, "With what I have on my plate, I can't help you with "abc" right now, but I may be able to help you with "def" or call back in two days regarding "abc," likely won't fly when in a subordinate position. (See "N & N" - Part I as well as process tips below for negotiating with colleagues and subordinates.)

Let's start with some background. When grappling with an important problem how does the "Big Boss" often approach underlings especially in times of uncertainty and transition? I'll venture to say I'm not the only one who's been on the receiving end of this (melo)dramatic message" "It's an emergency; drop everything!"

And if you simply do as instructed this is a prescription for high stress; and if common practice, a formula for burnout. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away. Actually, in all likelihood the fundamental issue is the boss' exaggerated declaration - the situation is an "emergency." In my book, emergencies are basically "life and death"; everything else can be prioritized. Whether the boss is in a harried state or has a Type A predisposition to always be "in control," s/he is likely overreacting and trying to hijack you for a "crisis-driven rollercoaster ride."

So the first survival step means not buying this "emergency" problem description. In other words, don't let someone's false sense of urgency become your anxiety! Here are my suggested "Defusing the Crisis and Regaining Some Control" Responses:

a. Reframe and Acknowledge Its Serious Nature. The first step is to describe the issue as a "serious or troubling situation," moving it subtly from the "emergency" or "urgent," the sky is falling down lexicon. Such language not only allows for more options and rational thought (you don't have to immediately jump off the problem-solving cliff), it helps you feel some measure of control of the problem-solving process. And in these circumstances, anything that allows an individual some semblance of control or influence helps reduce personal anxiety or stress.

b. Ask for Prioritizing Guidance. Another big problem is the boss' lack of knowledge of all the other tasks and projects you likely have on your plate. Or even if aware of your workload and schedule, she's only focused on the alleged "meteorite" heading for his business. Now, replace the recommended emergency action mode with a strong suggestion to the boss: "Let's take five minutes to help me reprioritize what I'm currently working on, so I can give this serious situation the time, energy, and attention it deserves." (Hey, you can call this, at least in your own mind, a five minute "TEA" break.)

c. Facilitate Rational Control. In my experience, most bosses like or need to be in control of significant situations affecting them personally or organizationally. By asking for priority guidance, you are allowing the boss to transform his or her helter-skelter state into a more purposeful and focused mindset. You might even reinforce this process saying in so many words, "I want to make sure we do some strategic planning and priority readjustment before launching from our problem-solving cliff; not to do so, down the road, might invite misunderstanding and mistakes."

d. Set the Stage For the Feeling of Importance. Finally, by asking for assistance, you also will be appealing to his "expertise" or "experience" (whether wholly valid or not) and certainly his ego, if not vanity. And remember sociologist philosopher, Ernest Becker's powerful insight from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death: The most important human urge is the desire to feel important!

In addition, I suspect you won't be accused of being too dependent on others in an "emergency." Rather, you will likely be viewed as a cool-headed problem-solver who knows how to strategically marshal resources at critical times. You might say you are developing your "leading from behind" skills; much better than always running from or with those "seat of the pants on fire."

"N & N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No" (and Meaning It)

Having outlined and hopefully savored our "leadership lagniappe" (or "baker's dozen"), we are now ready for "The Final Five":

6. Repeat Yourself Exactly. For some people, hearing a "No" can be as difficult as it is for others to take a contrary stance. First, some just won't believe you; you've always been so "accommodating." (We won't mention that you've too often felt like a door mat.) Others will quickly decide that your "No" is a sign of disloyalty or defiance. These recipients of your "negativity," especially individuals who see themselves as being so accommodating and self-sacrificing, who have done so much for you, may feel deprived or betrayed. They are entitled to your siding with them, if not rewarding them, for their goodness. While claiming their motives are devoid of self-interest, ironically, you have violated their "just world" hypothesis - self-righteous attitudes and actions yield the right and deserved results. Alas, these people are trapped in their own "fairness fallacy," and want to drag you into their "holier than thou" (or "holy hell") belief system.

What this means is that your "No" may well be a shock to a demanding or delicate or a delicately demanding and dysfunctional person. And typically, in a state of shock, our sensory apparatus begins to glaze over. Or, once the shock has passed, the receiver of your "No" feels threatened or attacked and now may generate a new and narrow focus - to guilt-trip or browbeat until they get their way. In such a scenario, your "message sent is not message (objectively) received."

Affirmation and Direction through Repetition

Clearly, if it's important to get your message across, then persistence is necessary for restoring some order and borders to the transaction. In other words, repeat your message - word for word. If your initial message was objectively clear and straightforward, don't modify the content out of anxiety or false hopes. Beyond acknowledging that you would have liked being more helpful, don't dilute or soft-sell your "No." Remember, the message sent was missed or dismissed not simply due to a misunderstanding of the facts or your perceived faulty logic. Your "No," along with its control and status implications, challenges the receiver's self-centered expectations and misguided sense of fairness or entitlement. Remember, you have a track record of being pliable.

Based on the preceding argument, you should not be surprised by the receiver fumbling or dropping your "No" message. Second, don't take it personally if the other person doesn't "get it" at first. Again, calmly repeat your position. If not careful your surprise, disappointment, or frustration with the other party's "negative' reaction will contaminate your second, poised and reaffirming delivery. At best, a reactive message will have an exasperated or impatient air; at worst, your repetition may reek of a self-righteous or condescending tone.

7. Be Concise and Congruent. If your intention is to affirm your position, then saying "No" and your subsequent explanatory message should be clear and to the point. To borrow from the Bard, Brevity is (not just) the soul of wit. Being concise sounds confident; you appear in control if not in command. Adding excess verbiage (often reflecting psychic baggage) dilutes or obscures the crux of your message, i.e., one "can't hear the verbiage from the garbage!" In addition, over talking can also undermine your status and erode the perceived strength of your position and person. Suddenly you are defensively justifying your beliefs or behavior.

Just as unnecessary words and explanations can obfuscate a clear "No" message, nonverbal dynamics can also powerfully impact "message sent is message received." If a "No" is delivered tentatively or meekly, with eyes diverted and shoulders slumping, then words and body language are incongruent. You'll be lucky to be only accused of sending mixed messages. Invariably, a passive or ambivalent nonverbal presentation trumps the spoken word. Conversely, squared shoulders, direct eye contact along with a clear and firm tone heighten the credibility and potency of your "No."

The Bully Boss

Here's an example. I recall a paralegal being unfairly criticized, if not ridiculed, by a senior partner attorney to whom she was assigned. Alas, he seemed to enjoy tormenting subordinates. Most people would not stand up to him. The paralegal was becoming sick trying to get on the abuser's "good side." On the verge of quitting, she finally spoke with a more senior colleague. The latter's direct and concise advice: "Get tough or leave." (The other senior partners were not ready to take on this Rambo rainmaker.)

The young paralegal decided to become steely; she was not going to let this jerk drive her off. While it took practice, she began giving brief, no nonsense answers to this bully. She carefully modulated her emotional expressiveness; firm, detached, and business-like was her mantra. In other words, despite the status disparity between these antagonists, she was no longer being so deferential to the authority.

And big surprise. No longer able to make the paralegal squirm (at least outwardly), the attorney lost interest in "the game." This woman eventually left the firm, but on her terms. Clearly, being concise verbally and in control emotionally can foster inner resolve and be a source of personal integrity and interpersonal strength.

Take home lesson. Of course, on the "burnout battlefield," having to employ this survival coping strategy for extended periods of time may not be healthy for your mind or body. But this strategic "No-nonsense" position may help you win the short-term encounter. And you'll be setting limits and boundaries that may enable you, over time, to win the war, at least symbolically. Finally, you'll have a greater chance to leave the battlefield under your own powers.

8. Now Ask for Feedback and Discuss Options. Once you have clearly and concisely affirmed your starting (or non-starting) position, you have a solid base for soliciting input. Two feedback or negotiation possibilities immediately come to mind: a) discovering and acknowledging the other's thoughts and feelings about your "No" and/or b) having a discussion about problem-solving options.

a) Ask for input. Soliciting or accepting the other's input, especially a counterargument to your "No," may preempt an open or ongoing power struggle. Counterattitudinal research indicates that allowing people to argue with you often narrows a content and relational gap between antagonists. Remember, we rarely just argue facts or figures; frequently the intensity of an exchange involves elements of self-esteem and status, and who has discretionary power or resources.

The implied message of a counterattiudinal challenger might be: "You better realize that I have the freedom or the control to disagree (actively or passively) with you and your "No." Or, "Don't think you are better or smarter than me." For example, a subordinate expressing his or her difference with an authority (or vice versa) often takes the steam out of issue defiance or domination. Ironically, by not fighting another's need for control you may help the other loosen the control reins. And allowing an antagonist to disagree with you may, over time, help this person come around to your factual or attitudinal viewpoint. As I like to say:

If we can allow a person who says, 'Yes, but,' to rebut
Even if they may be a pain in the…
(But you know what I mean)
We can often get them to say, 'But…yes!'

b) Discuss and Validate Perspectives. Remember, in the long run, handling another's criticism or frustration with openness, calm, and conviction often builds trust. Also, within the framework of a self-reaffirming and trust-building "No" and post-"No" exchange, the stage is often set for productive negotiation: Mutual concession and "letting go" of "the one right way" frees the mind to discover overlooked options or design novel approaches. As Nobel prize-winning author, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss [including the feeling of loss of control or face when confronted with a "No"] we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

If at all possible, work hard to have both parties experience participatory involvement and input, along with some sense of status or relief, if not positive outcome. Or, at least, during this negotiation, the contentious parties must believe that there points have been truly considered and the concessions or loss of status and goals are not disproportionately one-sided. My favorite definition of consensus: each contending party gives up a little for the benefit of the common goal or greater good.

9. Time Out Option. In the heat of interpersonal conflict, if not outright battle, it's easy to lose your cool. Maintaining rational thought or expression (including managing facial scowling, voice tone and volume, finger pointing, etc.) is challenging when excited or highly emotional, and certainly when feeling under attack. Remember, you have the option to say, "Right now my position is 'No'" or even, "I'm not sure. I need to think about this further. I'll get back with you first thing tomorrow."

Taking a "time out" is not necessarily retreating in the negative sense, that is, you are not fleeing with your tail between your legs. Choosing to retreat can be a meditated option allowing you to reflect on your position and the nature of the conflict, as well as on any past, resurrected critical voices, grief ghosts, or simple previous hurts or embarrassments. And, if necessary, it also buys time for planning a more effective immediate counter and subsequent strategy.

Also, don't kick yourself for not mustering the perfect comeback to an arrogant or pompous aggressor. Know that you can recover from this momentary lapse. Have a good night's rest, formulate your riposte, and you'll nail the jerk in the morning. (Just kidding.)

Again, taking a time out means you are clearly setting a boundary, whether you have or have not articulated a definite "No." And hitting the pause button means you are less likely to be pressured into an impulsive reaction or decision. You are exerting some control, yet leaving open some room for negotiation. You present yourself as neither rigid nor righteous, that is, a know it all. You are not throwing fuel, i.e., "hot air" on the interpersonal fire. While your antagonist may still be smoldering, he also has time to ponder his reaction and your position along with his needs and expectations. A time out can be a "cooling off" period.

Laundry Wars: Defusing a Hot Cycle

Let me share the de-escalation value of a time out, whether mutually or purposefully derived or not. Anybody ever live in an apartment building? If so, what was the biggest potential battle zone? How about the laundry room? Sure enough, one day I've brought down my clothes to be washed and all the machines are cycling or spinning except one. This machine's cycle has ended, but the clothes are still inside. So I wait five minutes, and nobody shows. (As an ex-New Yorka, I believe there is a ten-minute "laundry room" grace period.) Well ten minutes is rapidly approaching…and I decide to take action.

Naturally, as I'm removing the clothes, who should walk into the room? It's their owner, and he's not happy. Alas, this guy, perhaps ten years younger, has me by about four inches and forty pounds, and begins yelling, "Why are you being so aggressive? Why are you being so aggressive?"

Initially I try to explain, mentioning the ten-minute wait, but to no avail. He's not listening; he's just enraged, verbally blasting me and physically getting closer. Finally, I've had enough, and using my best "command voice," declare, "Aggressive? I'm not the one that's yelling!" (And believe me, I was tempted to add, "you bozo" or "like a madman," but somehow either a higher power or maybe an awareness of our discrepancy in size helped frame my "I"-message counterpunch.) In other words, I did not turn "You"-message provocation into a laundry room conflagration. There are times when discretion is the better part of valor.

Well this finally slows Mr. Rhino in his tracks. (Sometimes, an irate "injured party" is not aware how out of control they are; the individual needs to be confronted with aggressive energy and startled into some reflective awareness.) Anyway, Mr. R. starts grumbling, gets his clothes, puts them in a drier, and slams the door on his way out.

While shaking a bit, I start my wash and leave. I recall sharing my experience with a retired neighbor. She empathized, adding that she too has found some of the younger people in the building inconsiderate when it comes to laundry room etiquette.

Anyway, thirty minutes later, I'm taking out my wash, transferring it into an empty drier when who should walk through the door. And suddenly I'm thinking: "Oh, oh…Round II." But no, during our half-hour retreat to neutral corners my antagonist has had a change of head if not heart. He now says, "You were right. How were you supposed to know when I was coming down?" Not quite an admission of regret or an apology, but at least a cessation of hostilities. I thanked him and we went our separate ways.

Closing Moral of the Story. Clearly, that thirty minute separation had a "cooling off" effect. Actually, there are times in the heat of battle when a person has to blow off steam, yet still be contained before becoming truly combustible, if cooler heads are to prevail. So how ever it arises, don't forget the power of a necessary "time out."

10. Summarize Agreements and Confirm Expectations, Including the Monitoring Process. As we tackle the final tip, first let's acknowledge that the preceding steps comprise a rational problem definition, personal control/affirmation, and mutual negotiation (or at least needed anxiety reduction or separation) process. Now, after you have put on the table and expressed your initial "No" along with alternate proposals and beliefs, expectations and emotions, it is wise to recapitulate your take on the agreement.

Also, ask the other party to put into words his or her understanding of what you won't do and what you will do. In turn, summarize the other's position and agreement. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool for closing any remaining gaps between "message sent and message received." Don't be surprised if you still require some final feedback volleys to reach consensus. And this "end game" exchange is critical for getting both parties on the same page regarding expectations: Do both parties have the same working conception of negotiated action plans and problem-solving steps?

Returning to our opening scenario involving the employee putting in more weekend overtime than his or her colleagues ("N & N" - Part I), here are some monitoring markers: a) has the manager placed the issue on the table in a timely manner at a team meeting?

b) does the team believe that the current project justifies extra-ordinary weekend work or do people feel they are being compelled to work unnecessary overtime because of a manager's or team member's inefficiency? and

c) if there is consensus on the need for this overtime, and a system and structure has been devised that has group "buy-in," does the negotiated plan, once put into action, achieve a more equitable distribution in the weekend workload? Surely, this is the bottom line! (P.S. Who will be the plan monitor and person responsible for providing the degree of plan effectiveness feedback to the group? If you are seeking increased group commitment and empowerment, it doesn't only have to be the manager)

Closing Summary

Part I of this three-part series outlined a variety of barriers to saying "No." Obstacles to setting limits and boundaries ranged from the psychological and interpersonal to the systemic and cultural. "N & N" - Part II and III outlined and illustrated ten tips and techniques to help you say "No and to Negotiate." The "N & N Top Ten":

1. Clean Up Your Static to Give a Clear Message
2. Be Empathic yet Firm
3. Use Relevant Facts; Place Issue in Context
4. Use Assertive "I"s Not Blaming "You"s
5. Don't Apologize
6. Repeat Yourself Exactly
7. Be Brief and Congruent
8. Now Ask for Input
9. Time Out Option
10. Summarize Agreements and Confirm Expectations, Including the Monitoring Process

This last essay began with a segment on setting limits and refocusing the "big boss." Then the final five were outlined. Together, the ten guilt busting, boundary setting, and bridge building commandments are not just guides for saying "No," disarming power struggles, and achieving productive consensus. Our "N & N" top ten yield strategic ideas for strengthening brain-body fitness and for generating uncommon "synergy" - when individual parts are transformed into integral partners. And these tools and techniques definitely help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!


Mark Gorkin, LCSW (

Mark Gorkin, the Stress Doc ™, acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker, Webinar Presenter, Retreat Leader and Motivational Humorist, is the author of Practice Safe Stress and The Four Faces of Anger. A former Stress & Violence Prevention consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc leads highly interactive, innovative and inspiring programs for corporations and government agencies, including the US Military, on stress resiliency/burnout prevention through humor, change and conflict management, generational communication, and 3 "R" -- Responsible, Resilient & Risk-Taking -- leadership-partnership team building. Email for his popular free newsletter & info on speaking programs. Check out his popular website -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). Stress Doc Mantra: "Think out of the box, perform outside the curve (the Bell Curve) and be out-rage-ous!"

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