Most people agree that “Yes” should mean “Yes”. What is the flip side of this concept? It’s simply that “No” means “No.” This is a boundary, a limit, and a big stop sign. “No” is a complete sentence. It sounds like this, “You don’t need to understand me or agree with me but please back off when I say “No”.”
Who has trouble respecting your boundaries? Is it telemarketers who won’t stop calling you? Is it your boss who gives you work to do when you are already swamped? For parents, it’s often their kids who pester them and drive them to distraction.
I learned about parenting before I was a parent by working as a therapist at a residential treatment center. I was responsible for a handful of troubled teenagers who had been removed from their homes. The job of my team was to help these kids get back on track.
One boy in particular, whom I’ll call Mike, stands out in my memory. Mike liked to bend my ear about why I should lift restrictions that he had earned through his own poor choices. He would launch into a sob story and wouldn’t come up for air for what seemed like an eternity. Over time, I convinced Mike to first ask me whether I would even consider his extenuating circumstances before launching into his sad tales. If I had time to spare, I would say “Yes” to listening to him right then. If I was too busy, I would say “No” and we might arrange a time to talk later.
It took some practice for Mike to learn to back off. I’m not sure if anyone had ever both set and enforced boundaries with him. I was relieved when I saw Mike remembering to use self-restraint and ask me if I was free to listen to him.
Self-control is a muscle that is developed through practice. Over time, using restraint will become automatic and it will pay big dividends for kids like Mike. They’ll learn to wait for what they want, to rein in their angry reactions, and to delay gratification when something they want is beyond their grasp.
What can you say if you don’t want to be bothered?
- If you keep pushing me, I’ll end our conversation.
- If you won’t listen to me, I’m going to leave.
- Don’t call me, I’ll call you.
- I’m not available right now.
- I have too much on my plate.
- Please understand that it’s nothing personal, but it’s not in the cards for me right now.
Why This Works:
Being clear about what you’re willing to do saves time and prevents frustration. You won’t find yourself being resentful of time you are wasting on others’ priorities. Also, it’s respectful to say “No” to something you don’t want to do and won’t invest yourself in. It lets the other person know that you are not the answer to their problem and they should bark up another tree.
What Doesn’t Work:
Stringing people along is a bad idea. Also, making excuses usually backfires for two reasons. First, people get offended about what you say you are prioritizing over them. Second, excuses invite debate about what you could do and really should do (in their opinion).
List 3 times you’ve recently felt pestered. Write down these things for each situation:
- Who was pestering you.
- What they said.
- What you said or did in response.
- One or two options for reacting differently next time.