How To Say “No”
“Self-control refers to the mental energy individuals use to regulate their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.” Drug abuse, crime and obesity all have one thing in common–people’s failure to control their behavior in the face of temptation. While the ability to control and restrain our impulses is one of the defining features of the human animal, its failure is one of the central problems of human society. So, why do we so often lack this crucial ability?
The authors assume, that as human beings, we have limited resources to control ourselves, and all acts of control draw from this same source. Therefore, when using this resource in one domain, for example, keeping to a diet, we are more likely to run out of this resource in a different domain, like studying hard. Once these resources are exhausted, our ability to control ourselves is diminished. In this depleted state, the dieter is more likely to eat chocolate, the student to watch TV, and the politician to accept a bribe.
In a recent study, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and colleague Jennifer N. Gutsell offer an account of what is happening in the brain when our vices get the better of us.
Inzlicht and Gutsell asked participants to suppress their emotions while watching an upsetting movie. The idea was to deplete their resources for self-control. The participants reported their ability to suppress their feelings on a scale from one to nine. Then, they completed a Stroop task, which involves naming the color of printed words (i.e. saying red when reading the word “green” in red font), yet another task that requires a significant amount of self-control.
The researchers found that those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, indicating that they had used up their resources for self-control while holding back their tears during the film.
An EEG, performed during the Stroop task, confirmed these results. Normally, when a person deviates from their goals (in this case, wanting to read the word, not the color of the font), increased brain activity occurs in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which alerts the person that they are off-track. The researchers found weaker activity occurring in this brain region during the Stroop task in those who had suppressed their feelings. In other words, after engaging in one act of self-control this brain system seems to fail during the next act.
Tips How To Say No
- We say “yes”to others and ourselves because we want to please or avoid discomfort. But when eventually we can’t continue, we feel guilty. All parties suffer, anyway. Recognize that a desire to please, as much as discomfort anxietey often prevents us from saying no.
- Stick to your plan. If you have a written set of goals and strategies, this gives you a reason to stick to your course.
- When someone persists, repeat your position, perhaps in a slightly different way. (“As I already said, our policy is to donate to charities that help children only.”)
- Make sure you understand exactly what is being asked of you before you respond. Perhaps the task is more time consuming than you thought. On the other hand, it may not take much effort at all.
- Excel at just a few things, rather than being just average at many. Don’t try to do everything. (Remember self-control is an effort…)
- You have a right to say no.
- Be polite, but firm in saying no, even with yourself. You only build false hopes with wishy-washy responses. For instance, the phrase “I’ll try to be there” in response to a party invitation is giving yourself an excuse to avoid a commitment. It doesn’t do anyone any favours.
- When a superior asks you to do a new urgent task;
- Remind her that you are working on other projects that she has already identified as top priorities
- Ask for help in deciding where the new task should fall on the list of priorities
- Point out that you might be able to do everything, but not to the usual high standards that are expected.
- Some experts recommend keeping your answer short. This way, you can say no without feeling the need for a lengthy justification. (“I’m sorry, I’m not available that night.”) On the other hand, others say that giving a longer answer with reasons reinforces your credibility. Let the situation decide.
- Provide suggestions or alternatives to the person who is asking. (“I can’t do that task today, but how about next week,” or “How about asking John instead?”)
- When in doubt, it’s easier to say no now, then change your mind to a yes later, rather than the other way around.
And What when You Have to Say Yes?
- Sometimes, saying “yes” or giving in is simply unavoidable. Here are some techniques to use:
- Agree to the request this time, but ask how to plan better for the next time.
- Tell them or yourself yes, but keep in mind, that you or them owe you one.
- Take control by coming back with a timetable. For instance, say, “by the end of the week.”
- Put a tough condition on your indulging / agreement. “If it would only take an hour, I’d be able to help, but I can’t put more than that.”
Psychological Science Volume 18—Number 11, 933 – 937
Inzlicht, M., & Gutsell, J. N.
ABSTRACT—Past research shows that self-control is limited and becomes depleted after initial exertions. This study examined the neural processes underlying self-control failure by testing whether controlled, effortful behavior impairs subsequent attempts at control by depleting the neural system associated with conflict monitoring. Subjects either watched an emotional movie normally or tried to suppress their emotions while watching the movie; they then completed an ostensibly unrelated Stroop task while
electroencephalographic activity was recorded. The errorrelated negativity (ERN)—a waveform associated with activity in the anterior cingulate—was measured to determine whether prior regulatory exertion constrained the conflict-monitoring system. Compared with subjects in the control condition, those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, and this deficit was mediated by weaker ERN signals. These results offer a neural account for the self-regulatory-strength model and demonstrate the utility of the social neuroscience approach.