A few days ago, one of my students asked me to help him overcome the problem of being a “yes man.” He said he is overwhelmed because he doesn’t know how to stop pleasing other people who are starting to take advantage of him. If you fit this description, then stop everything else you’re doing and read this article because your days of being a “yes man” end today. Despite all the fantastic things about me (and yes, there are many fantastic things about me), I do have flaws. And being a “yes man” has been one of my biggest flaws. Just like you, I have trouble saying NO. So you and I are going to finally work this thing out. We’re going to get through this together, right here, right now today.
The way we’re going to tackle this is by focusing on two things: (1) the real reason you and I have so much trouble saying NO; (2) actual strategies to practice that will help you avoid being the “yes man” all the time.
The Myth of the “People Pleaser”
There are two myths about people like you and me who have trouble saying NO.
MYTH #1: People who have trouble saying NO don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
REALITY: This may be true only a little bit. The truth is that people who do say NO all the time don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either. Most people actually don’t want to hurt another person. Saying YES or NO to someone’s request is actually NOT about the other person’s feelings. (We’ve been led to believe that because it’s the easy answer to a difficult question.)
MYTH #2: People who have trouble saying NO are too nice.
REALITY: I know a whole lot of nice people who say NO all the time. In fact, many times, it’s actually nicer to say NO than it is to say YES. (Imagine saying YES to help someone when you really don’t have the time to do the task. Saying YES will set that person up for disappointment.) So being nice has very little to do with it.
The two myths above are centered on other people. The truth is that the habit of saying NO too often is usually an automatic action, not a conscious action.
And that’s why they are myths. Most (not all, but most) of our automatic actions are based on serving or protecting self-interests.
The Reason Why You Have Trouble Saying “No”
The real reason you have trouble saying NO is because, long ago as a child, you received some terrible consequence for saying NO to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, and that consequence is a story that repeats on a never-ending loop in your subconscious. This creates a type of automatic programming in which your first instinct is to say YES to things in order to avoid the pain of this imagined consequence.
It really boils down to programming.
You and I are programmed to say YES as our first response. Not everyone is prorgrammed this way, but unfortunately, this is true for people like you and me. After that first childhood consequence from saying NO at the wrong time in the wrong way, we immediately learned the incorrect lesson that NO brings bad consequences. So we immediately turn into a YES person in order to bring less pain to ourselves (not less pain to others).
And most of the time, that’s true. Saying YES more often does bring you less pain…temporarily. It’s more like putting ice on a broken finger. It doesn’t really solve the problem, and the problem eventually gets worse.
A Little Bit of Context
Over the past couple years, I’ve been getting better at silencing the YES MAN inside of me. Recently, my problem has taken a specific turn. I’ve gotten better at only saying YES to the things I want to do. HOWEVER, my problem is that I want to do way too many things. So, my feeling of being overwhelmed is coming from saying YES to too many of my own interests that I don’t always have time for. Here’s a list of the things I’ve said YES to recently:
- Full-time English professor (this is my full-time job, so this is a given);
- Chair of the English & reading department;
- West coast Regional Director of Groove Phi Groove, S.F.I.;
- Co-host of a radio talk show covering news, politics, and current events;
- Editor and podcast producer of the above-mentioned radio talk show;
In addition to saying YES to those things above, I’m also considering saying YES to the following:
- Accept an invitation to serve on the board of directors for my alma mater’s alumni association;
- Help organize, advertise, and speak at a personal development conference in April;
- Produce another podcast (this time based on music instead of politics);
- Help plan and participate in a mentor program for at-risk middle school students whose school is a 90-minute commute away;
All of this has to happen while being a busy father to a couple of active children, and at a time when my family is purchasing a new home in the next few months. I’ve also been developing my own publishing business in the last couple months and all of this takes huge amounts of time and effort.
But the beautiful thing in all of this is that I started by saying NO to other people’s requests. Here’s how I did it.
Learn How to Say No
Some “internet experts” try to tell you that overcoming your inner YES MAN is simple…just start saying NO to things like time-sucking meetings and other things you don’t want to do. But that’s like telling a new widow who is crying hysterically to stop crying and just get over it. It’s not always that easy to just stop. (If it was that easy, then we wouldn’t need those “internet experts,” right?)
The best thing to do is ask someone who struggles with it exactly how they overcame the issue. Here’s what has worked for me.
Strategy #1: Let your schedule say NO for you so you don’t have to be the one to say NO. Try this. Use a planner to schedule all the things you have to do for your job, for your own interests, and for your own happiness. The key is to schedule everything…your work hours, your classes, your homework time, your study time, your sleep time, your time at the gym, that date you have with your girlfriend, the date you have with that other girlfriend…schedule everything. If there were 500 hours in a week, I’d have no problem donating some of my time to other people. But there are only 168 hours in a week, so I have to schedule carefully.
Strategy #2: Protect your schedule like a bodyguard. Now you need to think of your problem in a new way. The issue is no longer having to say YES or NO to other people. Now the issue becomes figuring out what your schedule allows for. Learn to use this phrase here: “You know, I’d love to help, but I don’t have anymore room in my schedule for that. But here’s what I can do. Come back to me in three months when I get a couple of these projects done, and then maybe I can help.” This works every time. You’re telling the person that you really want to help (because it’s true…the YES MAN inside of you really does want to help). You’re also telling the other person that outside circumstances (i.e., your scheduled priorities) don’t allow you to help. And you’re also giving the person a suggestion of returning later when things free up. The beautiful thing is that most people won’t return in three months. Most people ask you for help on immediate and urgent things that are emergencies for THEM…so in three months, they will have solved the problem themselves or found someone else, and they won’t need your help anymore (a win-win situation for everyone.)
Strategy #3: Answer phone calls and email only twice per day. Several years ago, the problem of saying YES to everything got so bad that a very good friend of mine (the late great Dr. Daniel Bahner) gave me a great suggestion. He told me to take a marker and write the word NO in large letters on a Post-It note and stick the note on the hand receiver of my office phone. The next person who calls gets a fat NO to their question. Since then, I’ve learned a couple other strategies. When the phone rings, what do most people do? They answer it. They don’t realize that there is another option…let the phone just ring and go to voicemail. Depending on the type of job you have, learn how to respond to email and phone messages no more than twice per day. This frees you from the pressure of having to respond with a YES or NO answer right away. For example, I have a strange schedule, so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I only respond to emails and voicemail messages at 11:00am and 4:00pm. On Tuesdays, I don’t respond to any messages at all for the whole day, and then on Thursdays, I only respond to messages at 4:00pm. That’s it. Period.
Strategy #4: Say YES to your own interests ONLY IF they’re related to your most important goals for the year. Sometimes you have to say NO to yourself. In addition to all the things I’m already doing, there are other things I really want to do. I want to take jazz piano lessons, I want to write a novel, I want to design t-shirts, I want to create a new YouTube channel, I want to play in a few US Chess Federation tournaments, and I want to play in a local “over-40” men’s basketball league. Saying NO to other people is one thing, but saying NO to myself is entirely different. Like I said earlier, I’ve gotten better at saying NO to other people, but I keep saying YES to too many of my own interests. Right before the new year, I made a goal of only saying YES to things that help me earn money from work or my own business. So things like music lessons and chess tournaments have to get postponed until these other priorities are done.
I hope this helps. I would love to hear from other men who stoped being a YES MAN and found ways to take control of their lives. Leave a message here or on the Joker to King page on Facebook.