I used to be a people-pleaser. To the point where both my friends and my family told me “Nicole, stop being such a people-pleaser.”
I didn’t see it that way, though. From my perspective, the best way to get someone to do something I wanted was to do something they wanted first — not out of any kind of manipulative sense, but in a more general “if I say yes to this person, they’ll return the favour by saying yes to me.”
It took me until my early 30s to figure out that relationships don’t really work like that. Not personal relationships, where my willingness to watch every blockbuster action movie that released did not make my then-boyfriend any more interested in watching the re-release of Titanic (in 3D!) with me; and definitely not professional relationships. Saying yes to supervisors and co-workers can get you pretty far in the workplace, but it won’t necessarily get you where you want to go.
Nor will it get you what you’re worth.
To get that, you have to learn how to say no.
Practice saying no with the people who love you most
This type of learning, like nearly everything else, takes practice. When I realised that I needed to get better at saying no, I started with extremely low-stakes situations, such as telling an acquaintance that I couldn’t meet up for drinks. When I realised that saying no in a single situation didn’t cause a chain-reaction of unwanted consequences—like, the acquaintance didn’t hate me forever, we saw each other at another social event and it was fine—I practiced saying no to close friends. Still fine. Miraculously, our friendship survived the great “I don’t feel like tacos tonight” incident of 2016, which prepared me for more difficult decisions like “I won’t be able to join the big friend trip this year.”
Then I tried saying no to my parents, which was even more difficult, but also... it turned out ok. They still loved me, just like I still loved them even though they’ve been saying “no” to me since I was old enough to understand words.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because earlier today Quartz reminded us that before we launch into high-stakes negotiations, such as salary negotiations, we can practice our negotiating skills with the people who love us:
Jane Charlton, head of leadership programmes at London Business School, who along with her team at the school’s Alumni Career Centre has helped thousands of business students prepare for job interviews, says we should always negotiate, even when we know the answer is going to be no. And in order to make it more likely we’ll actually do so, she says, we should practice. That can mean using some surprising situations—a standoff with your kids about mealtimes, for example, or a discussion with a partner about where to go on holiday—to hone skills that can later be employed in meetings with managers.
Saying no rarely closes doors; instead, it opens up new opportunities
I’ve had to say no to a lot of people this year, and I’ve had to negotiate a few high-stakes professional situations—and all of that boundary-setting practice I started doing five years ago helped. Significantly. Learning how to stand up for what I wanted, what I valued, and what I was worth taught me two things:
Saying no to a single situation rarely means closing a door forever. Friends will still be there, family will still be there, professional contacts will still want to work with you.
Saying no to something you don’t want, especially career-wise, isn’t turning down an opportunity as much as it is making room for you to find a better opportunity.
There's no denying the gender pay gap. It's there: The average pay for a man, the average pay for a woman, and space between. The gap exists regardless of whether or not you believe it exists. Wage gap deniers don't deny the gap itself; they deny its significance. Women stay at home with children, so the numbers make sense, they say. Women don't negotiate, so of course there's a gap.
Yes, there are situations where you need to take whatever job is offered and do the best you can. After I graduated from college, for example, I spent a few months working as a telemarketer because I needed money and they were the ones paying. Learning how to say yes to whatever comes your way is a valuable skill—but at a certain point, learning how to say no becomes even more valuable.
Transfer your “saying no” skills into “win-win” skills
I’ll end this with one more insight; earlier this year I finally got around to reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and realised I needed to start evolving my “saying no” skill into “finding a win-win situation that satisfies both parties.” (If you’re not familiar with the 7 Habits, “think win-win” is Habit #4.) As Covey explains:
Many people think in terms of either/or: either you’re nice or you’re tough.
Win-win requires that you be both. It is a balancing act between courage and consideration.
Interestingly, the win-win situation is similar to what I thought I’d achieve by becoming a people-pleaser—only it’s coming from a place of integrity and cooperation, not an internal tally of tit-for-tat.
I’m still working on building this particular skill, but I suspect that as I get better at it, it’ll be as beneficial to my personal and professional life as learning how to say no has been.