June 12, 2011

BANGLADESH: A 'no' with deepest conviction is better than a 'yes' uttered merely to please

DHAKA, Bangladesh / The Daily Star / Life Style / June 12, 2011

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When 'yes' means 'no?'
By Milia Ali

Have you ever been in a situation where people ask for help and, despite the multiple and overlapping demands on your time, you have trouble saying "no?" Even when you know that conceding to the request might entail juggling your own competing priorities or losing a few hours of badly needed sleep? If the answer is "yes," you are not alone.

I happen to be one of those individuals who find it hard to refuse people when they ask for a favour. This is not to claim that I am more compassionate than others. It's just that I have failed to master the art of saying "no" and feel guilty and lousy after rejecting a request for help!

In most cases my main motivation for obliging a friend or a family member is to genuinely help out. Then, why is it that what starts out as a selfless act of kindness often becomes a cause for stress and frustration? Is it because I bite more than I can chew and end up resentful and stressed-out? The negative feelings are exacerbated when there is not much appreciation from those receiving the favours. Perhaps, I am at fault because I fail to express in definitive terms how much time and effort have been invested in the task.

Each time I go through one of these "yes, I can help" experiences, I promise that I will be more discerning about offering my services next time. Nevertheless, within days I find myself in the same tight spot. My frustrations have prompted a rigorous exercise of self-questioning. However, I am yet to reach a firm conclusion as to why many of us have difficulty saying "no" to requests for help. I wonder if it's because we have a strong need to be liked or we are afraid that a refusal might isolate us from collective activities. Or, may be, saying "no" requires that we make a considered decision and it's easier to flow with the tide and say "yes." There are, of course, some that help others for truly altruistic reasons. However, the problem arises when over-commitment lands us in situations where we are stressed and sometimes angry with the person who we are supposed to be helping.

The frustration heightens when we discover that people who have made demands on our time have the leisure to enjoy all the things that we would, in fact, like to indulge in! I am reminded of an interesting anecdote from my past . My neighbour in New Jersey had a 10-year old son, Nate, who attended the same school as my children. She would often ask me to bring him home from after-school activities, since she had a part time job. I would bring the boy home three to four times a week. This was not easy, given the multiple demands on my time with two small children of my own to care for.

One day I overheard my son ask Nate where his mom was. The child responded with innocent candor: "Well, today she said she was going to get her hair done. That really did it for me! Here I was sweating it out in the kitchen making special pasta for Nate's western palate and the mother was sitting in a swivel chair getting her hair made up, and that ,too, on my time? Needless to say, the next time she asked me to fetch her son from school, I politely made up an excuse and got out of the commitment.

I learned a crucial coping lesson from the episode. When someone asks for a favour, we need to be discriminating about what we can do and what we cannot. One strategy may be to buy time with a polite and somewhat positive response: "I would love to help. However, I need to think about it -- can I let you know in a day or two?" At least this gives one the opportunity to reflect on the implications. Also, it's easier to send an email or call and say "no" rather than reject a request upfront. In some cases I have resorted to assuming partial responsibility and my answer is: "I am really overcommitted at this time. But I do want to help. Can I just do 'this' and not 'that'?"

The point is, as long as acquiescing to a request for help does not create an imbalance in our own lives, we need to do what we can to contribute to the well-being of those around us. But if we feel grumpy or edgy about giving, we are better off avoiding such obligations. It's important to find the right equilibrium between our daily commitments and what we can do for others. After all, time is not an elastic commodity and investing time in others may require fine tuning our own priorities. We also have to accept the fact that, despite all our good intentions, some occasions will demand a firm “NO!” As Gandhi said: "A 'no' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble."

What is the best way to say "no" and yet ensure that people don't feel rejected? Unfortunately, I have no silver bullet answer. If any of you have a foolproof strategy that works and want to share it with others please let me know and I can help spread the word around. Oops! Did I just say "yes, I can help?" I mean "send me an email and I will let you know if I can help!!"

The writer Milia Ali is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank. File photo above courtesy: Monden.ro

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