Why more women need to learn the art of the ‘no sandwich’

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Jo Hartley
Standing in the crowded room clutching my drink, I take a sneaky glance at the time. I’ve only been here 30 minutes, but I’m already wondering when I can leave.

I’m at a work social event and I don’t want to be. Judging from the idle chit chat and forced laughter that resonates around me, I suspect I’m not alone.

It’s not the first time I’ve said “Yes” to something I don’t want to do. And it’s unlikely to be my last.

“Women are people pleasers, so it’s fairly common for them to say ‘Yes’ and commit to things when they would rather not,” says health psychologist Marny Lishman.

“In the past women had clearly defined roles, usually that of the child-rearer, nurturer or home maker, and so our default thinking is to appease others, and say yes straightaway.”

Workshop facilitator Rachel Service, aged 34, understands this all too well. “I spent my twenties in perpetual fear of saying ‘No’ at work,” she says. “I’d say ‘Yes’ to everything, taking on too much and not fully understanding what I was agreeing to.”

Service said “Yes” to work that wasn’t in her area of interest or expertise, and even said “Yes” when she was mentally exhausted.

“When one client offered me double the money, I said ‘Yes’, but then spent the next eight weeks filled with anxiety,” she recalls.

“My mouth filled with ulcers, which left me bedridden for six weeks and unable to eat. I couldn’t stand up one day because I was exhausted and I even passed out on the way to work.”

Subsequently, Service was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and adrenal fatigue. This doesn’t surprise psychologist and relationship coach Megan Luscombe.

“When you’re not living the life you want to it can negatively impact on your mental and physical wellbeing,” she says.

When we’re not true to ourselves, feelings can manifest in anger, resentment or guilt. But we don’t always want to push back because of fear.

“Pushing back brings fear that you might get told off or that you’ll have to think of a valid reason for saying ‘No’,” says Luscombe.

“If we say ‘No’ to things, people may change their views and behaviour towards us and, for some, that thought is extremely daunting and scary.”

I can relate. I want to be liked, I want to please and I need acceptance. All of these things drive me to say “Yes” when I often mean “No”.

But I’m the only one who can make this change.

And it was much the same for Service. “I was sick of feeling exhausted from saying ‘Yes’ to what other people wanted,” she says.

“I realised I could change my life by learning how to say ‘No’, valuing myself and having courageous conversations.”

Ironically, Service now runs workshops that empower women to say “No”. Within this, she teaches a “No” sandwich technique, using a three-step strategy.

The strategy consists of:

  • Validating the request with a positive statement
  • Outlining why you don’t have the capacity to do as asked, using facts not emotions
  • Suggesting an alternative and/or changing the subject

An example of putting this into practice is:

“Thanks for thinking of me, that sounds like fun.

“I appreciate the invite, but unfortunately I’m not available on that night.

“I’m keen to see you sometime soon, though, if you’d like to get together. How are things with you anyway?”

Service says that such strategies help us to have challenging conversations in a positive way.

So do men struggle to say “No” as much as women? Lishman doesn’t think so. She says that throughout history men have been allowed to do what they want and say “No” without the consequences women try to avoid.

“They’ve never been negatively judged for doing this. In fact, they’ve probably been seen as being brave and tough, and so that default setting has remained.”

Maybe there is a lesson for all of us here. Instead of obligingly saying “Yes” to things we should courageously say “No” – with or without the sandwich.

Will I be able to do it? I’m not so sure – only time and practice will tell. But will I try? Yes I will … and for once I’m saying “yes” and truly meaning it.

Both experts offer the following advice and tips for those who struggle to say “No”:

  • Just say “No” and see what happens. The outcome is not always going to be bad. Don’t let the anxiety of saying “No” put you off.
  • Be assertive, say “No”, and clearly state the reasons why.
  • Remember that you cannot control what others think of you.
  • Remember that if you’re looking after your own needs first, other people are going to benefit from a better, happier version of you.
  • Ensure that when you say “Yes” to something, you’re not saying “No” to yourself.
  • Be confident in your own choices, wants and needs. You are your priority; own that and love it.
  • If something doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it.

 

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