Researchers have demonstrated that humans are simply hard-wired to reciprocate.
American humorist Josh Billings really hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”
At no time of year is the wisdom in that statement more evident than in the period from early November through the end of December. Between school-related fetes, company parties and gatherings of friends and family, it’s easy for your dance card to become overfilled.
When you pile on additional requests, like baking cookies for a child’s class, going in on a group gift (or five) for colleagues and acquaintances, it’s easy to see how you could end up on Dec. 31 feeling exhausted, broke and, well, maybe even taken advantage of if your default response to incoming requests is “yes.”
Believe it or not, saying no does not come naturally to us. Researchers have demonstrated in different ways that humans are simply hard-wired to reciprocate. It stems from our early ancestors, who learned to share food and skills, and eventually divide up labor and exchange a variety of goods and services. A web of indebtedness served a critical function: it meant that one person could give something to another without the feeling that it had been lost. Without that sense, an individual had no reason to contribute something of value to the group, and no significant advancements would have been possible.
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So, you see, far from being a bad thing, that sense of obligation you get when someone makes a request is actually central to our advantage as a species and ingrained in our cultural norms for millennia. We all go to great lengths to avoid being called a mooch, freeloader or ingrate for good reason.
Of course, there are other factors that increase our likelihood of saying yes, such as a lack of clarity around your own goals and objectives, a desire to avoid confrontation, as well as your age. The younger you are, the less likely you are to have grasped the hard-earned wisdom of saying no. But the big one is reciprocity. It explains why we feel the pull of cultural norms (e.g., desire to avoid being labeled a shrew or ingrate) and why there is such a strong and positive — some might say addictive — feedback loop when you say yes.
So if saying yes to requests is innate, how do you overcome the tendency without falling prey to the negative side effects of saying no? Well, as we were writing our last book, “Pretty Neat,” Alicia and I studied the tactics of the most experienced group of “naysayers.”Who were they? They were people over the age of 45 who had learned how to say no with grace only after experiencing the pain of over-commitment. Here are three of the brilliant strategies they employ along with descriptions of how you might use them to maintain control of your calendar as the holiday season ramps up.
1. Beg for time. Swap your “sure, no problem” for “that sounds really interesting; let me think about it and get back to you with an answer.” Then use the time to determine whether you want to accept the request. For party-related requests, instead of a knee-jerk “we’ll be there!,” try “that sounds like it will be lots of fun! When do you need an RSVP by?” Then in the low-pressure environment of your own home, you can determine whether you really want to attend.
2. Have a few scripts at the ready. Sometimes it’s easier to have a canned response than to figure out how to respond appropriately in the moment. Since every situation different, it makes sense to have a few different scripts at the ready. My personal favorite “no” script for event invitations: “Oh, my heart says yes, but, sadly, my calendar says no.” For additional scripts, check out the iNo app for the iPhone for $0.99. It has more than 1,000 nice and not-so-nice ways to say no.
3. Focus on finding a compromise. Sometimes the best way to deliver a no is to suggest an alternative. Try offering to do something else or suggest an alternative due date that will make both you and the other person happy. This is something that works really when it comes to the pressure to participate in a group gift at work. When asked to throw in money for a gift, say, “Rather than spending 10 bucks here and there on random gifts that none of us will ever really use, why don’t we link arms and give a really great group gift to an organization that helps families in need this time of year?”
The writers are co-founders of Buttoned Up, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized