Why it’s hard for us to say no (and yes)

Posted 23 October 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

Previously, I posted about how to look at some of the decisions that you may be faced with, and weighing the ramifications of the yes or no on your overall career. It is always a helpful reminder to frame decisions by saying yes to those things that our institution rewards. The things you say yes to for your own personal satisfaction and reward need to follow from that.

In talking to lots of people about mentoring and the ways they make decisions, the one theme that keeps coming up time and time again is that you have to really get to know yourself and what you want out of this career and just as importantly, it’s helpful to start to parse through why it is that you feel you can’t say to no to say things. In other words, it’s no so much about learning to say “no,” but rather, learning more about ourselves in why we feel we can’t say no.

First and foremost, you have to know what you want out of this career, and I’ll be the first to admit that it changes and I will be the first to admit that sometimes answering that question is really hard. But you have to a sense of what it is you want. For example, I do not mind administration, but I would prefer to do small administration (e.g., running a program, running a center, managing a discrete project with a start and end date). I know without a doubt I will not do administration greater than this. I don’t want to (it’s too much like the project management I used to do so someone please remind me of this the second it ever comes up in conversation J) Also, I have learned that I enjoy—and am much better at—teaching certain kinds of courses as opposed to other kinds of courses. I also choose service opportunities in large part based on the decision matrix I posted previously.  This sort of self-awareness has really helped in guiding the decisions that I make.

Now, when I write it all down like that it looks so nice and clean and easy. I don’t want to lend false hope because it’s not easy or clean. It’s messy and hard trying to figure yourself out, and I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that many of us gravitated to this job because of the flexibility and diversity of it—because we didn’t want to settle on something. (Yes, I do see how those things don’t necessarily go together!). But, I am encouraging you to give it some thought to figure out what you want.

The second part of this—why we feel we can’t say no—is just as complex. In this, too, I went to the collective mind to find out what some of the biggest reasons were that folks struggled with saying no. Here’s a list of what they told me with some initial thoughts about how to think through them.

Fear of missing out
I can pretty much say with certainty that any opportunity that presents itself will come around again. Every grant or fellowship will have another cycle; every research collaboration will still be there (albeit in maybe a different form); every partnership will still be available (if they were really interested and sincere); every …the list can go on and on. I understand what this feels like, and I get how there is the feeling in your head and your body (sometimes a true physiological reaction) about how X is the “perfect fit.” But if the timing isn’t right, it isn’t a perfect fit, and it’s important that you consider all the factors before you answer. Saying “yes” because you have the fear of missing out isn’t reason enough to say “yes.” In most cases, it’s reason enough to say “no.” The point is to try and recognize this part of the feeling and try to separate it out so this emotional reaction isn’t driving the decision.

Being seen uncooperative or not a team player or as selfish or not caring

We all want to fit into our respective departments/programs and be seen as someone that is a team player or someone that is advancing the common goals. Closely related to team player is the slightly different perspective where one wants to make sure that they aren’t being seen as being selfish or not caring. This latter view is more about how you see yourself in relation to your colleagues and their perception of you.

In each of these cases, we can sometimes over-compensate and feel as though we have to say “yes” to everything. Please don’t let this happen to you. You do not have to sit on every committee. You do not need to do everything a colleague asks. You do not have to volunteer to do the social things or the advising things or the department representative things or any of the other “one-off” or “it won’t take much time” tasks that are asked of you in hopes you are seen as the “team Player” and “caring about the department.” Because all of those things that “won’t take much time” actually do and every extra committee that you sit on (when you really don’t need to) means that something else in your life has to give. There are only 24 hours in the day.

Read your workload and tenure and promotion documents. Talk to trusted colleagues in your department. Think through what it is you want and then say yes and no based rather than these other things.

Feeling that you have to say yes

There are occasions we say “yes” to things—from teaching schedules that aren’t in our best interests to service roles to even research collaborations—because we feel that we have to based on some ill-defined perception or understanding that there is no other choice.

Typically, though, there is another choice. If you ever feel this way, please immediately stop and ask someone for her perspective. Feeling that you have no other choice is not a good place to be and if the decision is made hastily can in the words of Bartok (a character from a Disney movie), “nothing good can come of this!”

Overcompensating for (perceived) lack of __________

Sometimes we get to the point that we end saying “yes” to things to make up for what we perceive as our lack of [fill in the blank]. The internal logic goes that if you’re not producing in one way [let’s say research] then you need to make up for it in another or if you’re not sitting on as many committees as person X, then you need to add something else to make up for it.

Typically, this occurs when we’re not seeing our own work through an objective lens and/or we’re being too hard on ourselves. Over-production is definitely a problem and so is this notion that we have to be busy all the time. Both of these things can lead us to believing that we’re not doing enough. Try to be objective about your work and again, reach out to ask for trusted advice on the accepted levels in your department. Use your annual evaluations as a way to gauge where you can potentially cut back or to even out what you need to be doing. In other words, let the facts drive things rather than your perceptions.

Gendered roles

Several people that I talked to about these issues brought up gendered roles and more specifically those around being a parent. In this I feel the least qualified to comment.

But, I can say comfortably that all of these points play out differently and painfully when they are viewed and enacted through specific gender roles and how others perceive those gender roles. All of that plays into how many women make and feel they have to make decisions. One woman explained it to me that she felt she had to say “yes” to one particularly onerous committee because she could never make another committee’s meeting time because it conflicted when she picked her daughter up from school. I have no doubt this sort of situation plays out a lot. In this you have to find a local advocate that has navigated the situation to provide useful and helpful advice. If no such advocate exists, reach out to the network in #womeninTC to find those with similar experiences to get information and practices so that you can make informed decisions based on local situations.


Moving forward

Much like the previous post in thinking through how best to make decisions, this post is hopefully one that will help you think through some of the things that may be behind why you feel you have to make certain decisions.

And remember, too, that often it’s not about just saying no or yes. It could be about saying not right now or maybe later or ask so and so instead.

It’s about figuring out the HOW to answer requests and the when to answer them that is important.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or finding yourself saying “yes” more often than you think you should because of these or related issues, reach out to someone to talk it through. There are no easy answers to any of these. But in talking with others about their experiences and practices, hopefully, you can understand your own motivations better and develop strategies that work for you and your career.

So sorry this ran on for sooooo long. But, hopefully, it will give you some things to think about in terms of what may be behind some of your decision making.

Happy mid-terms and remember to be certain that you’re taking care of yourself!






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