Obligers like to meet external obligations, but they have a very tough time holding themselves accountable. – Gretchen Rubin
If you’re familiar with Gretchen Rubin’s work, you may already be familiar with having an “obliger tendency.” If you aren’t, an obliger is a person who will easily follow requests from others and get things done when they are held accountable by another person. They have a hard time saying no to others but have no problem saying no to themselves. If it’s requested by someone else, they’ll come through just about every time.
(You can find out about the three other tendencies coined by Rubin here.)
Obligers don’t want to let people down. They want to be helpful. And in turn, they end up with way too much on their plate.
I believe that you can say no in a way that doesn’t offend or mislead. You don’t have to ignore people; you can keep your friendships strong without having to say yes to every request.
Here are my suggestions for how to say no as an obliger.
Be realistic about your priorities
We all have priorities and sometimes it’s hard to tell someone else that they don’t make the list of yours. You obviously don’t need to say that, but be realistic with yourself. Make a list of your priorities if you have to. When things come up, it’ll be easier to deny them when you’re focused on what matters the most to you.
If it’s a boss that’s asking you to do something extra, clarify with them what the priority tasks are. Let them know how much time your current tasks take up. Before getting worked up and overwhelmed at work, communicate.
If it’s an acquaintance asking something from you, “I would love to help you, but I am currently swamped with assignments” is a perfectly acceptable excuse.
Say “no and…”
I discovered the “no and…” technique on The Lively Show podcast. The idea is that you deny a request by saying “no” while still providing the person with value. It is totally possible to reject someone and still leave them better off than when they reached out to you. You can provide them with a resource or words of encouragement or mention a service that you have found to be beneficial. You don’t have to give a person what they are requesting of you in order to be helpful. Find another way to help someone that doesn’t require a ton of extra work from you.
Take meetings with yourself
If you’re finding that you don’t have any time for personal projects, know that “I have a meeting” is perfectly reasonable even if it simply means “me time.” We have to schedule in some self-care sometimes, because taking care of ourselves is important. In order to keep working, our sanity has to be maintained.
Choose wording that feels authentic to you
I’ve heard people give advice for saying no on podcasts before and they’ll say something like, “No is a complete sentence.” And while I agree with that, I understand how this may not be helpful for someone with an obliger personality. I find that people are typically not comfortable giving a “no” without more explanation and equally so, others are not comfortable receiving it. Because of this, we’ll often come up with excuses or lies to validate why we’re rejecting someone.
I think it’s good to consider someone’s feelings and to give a reason that feels true to you. I would never recommend lying, but work on finding an authentic way to express your “no.” Remind yourself that saying no is perfectly acceptable and when someone asks a favor of you, “no” is always a choice you have. You can choose to word it in a way that you feel most comfortable with. Play around with different ways that feel right to you. It might take some time to get used to it if you’re used to being a “yes” person.
Accept that you have enough going on
Sometimes we want to be busy so much so that we take on far more than we can handle comfortably. If this is the case for you, it might be time to check in with yourself and see if what you’re working on aligns with your core values. Is what you’re working on going to bring you closer to the future you that you want to be? If not, I hope you at least enjoy it. I know that sometimes it’s necessary to take on a new project that doesn’t align with your values because of money. But open yourself up to the possibility that you can have both money and more freedom.
Ask yourself, how would I treat someone else?
And then try to treat yourself that way. You are not a machine, so don’t let other people treat you like one. The worst thing an obliger can do is to let people take advantage of them. And oftentimes, people do take advantage of the person who is always willing to do it. Don’t let other people treat you in a way that is unfair.
Use the sandwich technique
One of the best ways to reject someone is to compliment then reject then compliment. Start by lifting that person up and end with lifting them up. When you do that, it definitely lessens the blow and when done well, that person won’t feel rejected at all afterwards.
Your friend emails you to ask if you can help him proof-read a chapter in the book he’s writing. You’re a writer, so you’re flattered that he wants your opinion. But you’re also super busy (or you simply don’t want to do it), here’s how my email response would look:
“So great to hear from you. Thank you so much for thinking of me. That is so exciting that you’re writing a book. I can’t wait to read the final copy! I’m currently focusing on some writing projects of my own. I wish I had time to do both, but I want to maintain my sanity while completing these projects. I hope you understand. Let’s get coffee soon. I’d love to catch up with you and hear more about it.”
Or, using the “No AND” approach here’s how I’d respond:
“You’re writing a book? That’s amazing! I can’t wait to read it once it comes out, but I’m swamped with my own projects right now. I can recommend a few different websites that were super helpful in getting me through my editing process. I also know an amazing editor that I can get you in touch with if you’d like. Let me know and thank you for thinking of me.”
If you’re struggling to say no to opportunities or requests from friends, coworkers, bosses and the like, I hope you found these tips helpful. Send us any techniques you’ve tried in the past. We’d love to hear them.