Why women find it hard to say 'no'

And how to get better at it

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women have more trouble with refusal than men.

“Women tend to value compassion and connection,” says Emma Grey, director of WorkLifeBliss and the author of Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum. “They’re often driven by a need to provide and receive empathy and to nurture others, and feel that by saying no to a request, they’re rejecting or devaluing that person.”

It sounds stereotypical, but the science is on side. Some research suggests that women’s brains are more likely to signal empathy than men’s brains. In a recent longitudinal study published in The Spanish Journal of Psychology, women could better feel and understand the emotions of others than men.

This being said, women and men don’t differ in their ability to detect their own or other people’s emotions – and since this is the first step towards feeling empathy, we at least start out biologically equal.

Sometimes we do know that a situation calls for assertiveness, but being straightforward can be tricky. Some research suggests that it is often more difficult for women to speak up, particularly if the recipient is a male. However, research from the University of Texas shows that women find it more difficult to negotiate for themselves, yet are more comfortable and effective when doing so on behalf of others.

Make saying 'no' easier
Saying no is not a criticism of the other person’s offer or a rejection of their relationship with you. It’s about setting personal boundaries that regulate your dealings – your sociability – with others.

“Psychologically, we’re talking about how skilful we are in our relationships at having boundaries when we need them,” says Gestalt therapist Justine Buckley from Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. “No is stating our boundary, lovingly or more firmly as needed.”

The key to living harmoniously with ourselves and others is respect, says life coach Michelle Landy. “Taking care of yourself is vital if you are going to value others. Fill your own cup and then you will find there is so much more to give to others.”

Professional negotiator William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, is a well-known advocate of the ‘positive no’ – otherwise known as the ‘bad news sandwich’. He says this strategy preserves your relationship while asserting your position: begin with a yes that expresses your needs and values, continue smoothly with the no, and then finish with a second yes that furthers your relationship. For example, “My children need me to spend time with them. I can’t work this weekend. Here’s my plan on how I will get the work done next week.” Simple, unapologetic but sympathetic.

Dr Dr Joann Lukins, director of Peak Performance Psychology, says it’s important to communicate a clear message if you decide to use this strategy. She also recommends thinking about a recent situation where your actions, needs or feelings weren’t respected, then imagining yourself handling that situation again in a more assertive way.
“Realise that a lack of assertiveness is something you have generated in your mind,” says Dr Lukins. “When in a situation where you don’t speak up, ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen if I share my thoughts calmly and with a clear message?’”

NEXT: Bring out your 'inner mean girl' or browse our Relationships section for more relationship advice

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