How to say “No” and preserve your relationships

In a surprising way, the pandemic has shown me what I valued underneath the technicolor zebra stripe of my google calendar. The connections I have with family and friends.

I laughed a year ago when I watched the Portlandia episode “Cancel it” (2 minute Portlandia episode). Apparently there is a tendency for people to accept any obligation in the future, despite their lack of wanting to, then using the miracle of technology, cancel it at the last minute over text. It goes to the absurd, canceling Christmas, couples counseling, even weddings. Well, it seemed absurd then…little did they know how things would change a couple of years later! 

I identify with this pattern. I tend to suffer from future time optimism – in a year I’ll have time to write that book, travel to Hawaii, save enough money to stop being busy, and really be happy. And socially, it’s hard for me to say “no” to something that is a year in the future, especially if I don’t have anything else on the calendar. Maybe I’m a closet curmudgeon?

I am wondering, how I might keep this slower pace post-pandemic. How might I keep the connections with those around us, without all the nonsense, the to-and-from wasteful travel/commuting? There was a bunch of waste that in hindsight felt like featuring it vs fixing it.

Maybe I need a special code-word with friends/family when they ask me to signup for something that I feel obligated to do, but I don’t really want to do? (e.g. “Cacao” for Portlandia fans, Oklahoma for Ted Lasso fans). 

I recently had an exciting opportunity to help with some volunteer time off for a criminal justice education non-profit. It was a great organization for a cause I wanted to learn more about. It would only be 4 hours. I worked with one of them before. A real nice guy. He gave the opportunity me to coach the MIT kids. And as a nice bonus, I would get my name on the instructor list at MIT. I anticipated the feeling of prestige, and righteousness washing over me. 

Then I thought, while that is nice, I knew it would have taken actually 8-20 hours to do it well, and given my other commitments with my day job in January, I wouldn’t be able to do the other stuff in my job well. I’d be neglecting family and other obligations. So I took a cue from Gerry Weinberg, who wrote a bunch of books on psychology and computer programming, and tried Satir’s Soft Spurn. (Virginia Satir was a famous family therapist he learned most of his psychology from, and by extension influenced the entire agile community to be more human-centered.)

I said  ‘Thanks for thinking of me. I really enjoyed working with you before and this seems like a great cause. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit for me. I wish you the best and I’ll shop it around with others…’ And I was able to find someone else for whom it did fit.

The soft spurn consists of three elements:

1. Show genuine appreciation, in words, tone, and body language (for example “I’m honored that you would ask me”)

2. Give a regretful but clear no, without excuses (saying, “Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit for me.”

3. Indicate an opening to some other relationship in the future (saying, “…at this time”). [1]

For me, #3 was an opening or concession to some other helper. It seemed to work. I preserved my existing commitments for January and maybe evened deepened my relationships by connecting my friend with another coach who could volunteer time.

And if you hear me give you that response, please know I’m honored you would ask me for help. And, while I might not what to do whatever it is you are asking me to do, I value you as a person and our relationship. I might want to do it later.

If you end up using this, please let me know how it goes for you.

[1] Weinberg, Gerry. More Secrets of Consulting (Dorset House, 1985), 77

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