The word “no” should be in everyone’s vocabulary. In the last column I pointed out that helping should feel good to the helper as well as the recipient. Therefore, the helper must not feel pressured by an inability to say “no.”

Jackie had a one-bedroom apartment in NYC and her cousin Nancy from Montana asked to visit for a week. Aside from her apartment being small, Jackie had a busy life and didn’t feel especially close to Nancy. Jackie was unable to say, “Sorry, my apartment is too small” and she dreaded the visit.

Nancy came to New York with enthusiasm and a full agenda. She expected Jackie to escort her to the Empire State Building, the Staten Island Ferry and Katz’s Deli. Since Jackie gave no indication that she had been to all of these places, Nancy naturally assumed she shared her delight.

Jackie felt increasingly invaded and exploited. Yet she did not want to offend her cousin. Her irritation grew and she didn’t want to be a tour guide to places that had long since lost their romance for her. Jackie became passive aggressive in subtle ways; she was critical of Nancy’s clothes and her itinerary. Jackie and Nancy never had a direct blowup and they parted in a friendly but perfunctory way. After Nancy thanked her, they never spoke again. Instead of the trip bonding them, it split them. “Sorry,” with an explanation would have been both appropriate and understandable and would have prevented the ill feelings.

Rose’s friend Carol took a night course near her house. Carol didn’t drive at night so her husband Dan drove her. After dropping her off, he asked if he could visit Rose and her husband Zach weekly for an hour and a half rather than drive 30 miles home and back. At first Rose and Zach enjoyed Dan’s company, but that soon wore thin. Zach said he had to tell Dan they had other things to do. Rose protested, saying, “They’re not going to like you if you refuse them.” Zach’s answer was that he was beginning to dislike Dan and unless he said something, bad feelings would erupt.

We are raised to please people and we should be sensitive to their feelings. However, we also have responsibilities to ourselves. When there are overlaps of responsibilities and gray areas of relationships, conflicts can arise. Before saying “no,” I’ll often ask myself how I would feel if that person turned me down and consider offering an honest explanation rather than a flat rejection.
Dan of course accepted Zach’s explanation and felt somewhat guilty that he had intruded. After setting limits, Rose, Carol and their husbands maintained their friendships. A blowup was averted and the matter was soon forgotten.

Helping must be voluntary. If we feel we are sacrificing, we may lose in two ways: We resent the favors we feel required to do and we start to resent the person who coerced us into helping. Yet it is not the fault of the person who asked. Nancy and Dan did nothing wrong. Jackie and Rose did because of both their inabilities to say “no.” Rather than ruining a relationship, saying “no” with an explanation can maintain one.

For more from Dr. Fred Levine, visit his website