The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psyumorist (tm)
Feb 2013, No. I, Sec. II
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Click here: Stress Doc: Notes from a Motivational
Psychohumorist ™: The Final Five "N & N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No
The Final Five "N &
N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No” (and Meaning It) – Part III
Part I of this
three-part essay, “Why Is It Hard to ‘Just Say No’?: Ten Barriers to
Asserting Your Individuality, Intentionality, and Integrity,” focused on ten
psychosocial barriers to affirming priorities, setting boundaries, and saying
email@example.com if you missed Part
Part II presented
the first five "N & N" Tools and Techniques for Saying "No” (and Meaning It):
1. Clean Up Your
Static to Give a Clear Message
2. Be Empathic yet
3. Use Relevant
Facts and Place Issue in Context
4. Use Assertive "I"s
Not Blaming "You"s
5. Don't Belabor an
And Part III will
close out the “N & N Top Ten” and provide some “lagniappe” (a little extra as
we’d say in N’Awlins) – tips for even setting limits on the “Big Honcho.” Until
then…Practice Safe Stress!
Avoiding the “Drop
Everything, It’s an Emergency” Trap
onto the “Final Five,” let’s lead with the “lagniappe.” How do you say no to
the “Big Boss” or anyone in a significantly higher authority role? My
recommendation of saying, “With what I have on my plate, I can’t help you with
“abc” right now, but I may be able to help you with “def” or call back in two
days regarding “abc,” likely won’t fly when in a subordinate position. (See “N
& N” – Part I as well as process tips below for negotiating with colleagues and
Let’s start with
some background. When grappling with an important problem how does the “Big
Boss” often approach underlings especially in times of uncertainty and
transition? I’ll venture to say I’m not the only one who’s been on the
receiving end of this (melo)dramatic message” “It’s an emergency; drop
And if you simply do
as instructed this is a prescription for high stress; and if common practice, a
formula for burnout. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more
that you gave yourself away. Actually, in all likelihood the fundamental
issue is the boss’ exaggerated declaration – the situation is an “emergency.”
In my book, emergencies are basically “life and death”; everything else can be
prioritized. Whether the boss is in a harried state or has a Type A
predisposition to always be “in control,” s/he is likely overreacting and trying
to hijack you for a “crisis-driven rollercoaster ride.”
So the first
survival step means not buying this “emergency” problem description. In other
words, don’t let someone’s false sense of urgency become your anxiety!
Here are my suggested “Defusing the Crisis and Regaining Some Control”
a. Reframe and
Acknowledge Its Serious Nature.
The first step is
to describe the issue as a “serious or troubling situation,” moving it subtly
from the “emergency” or “urgent,” the sky is falling down lexicon. Such
language not only allows for more options and rational thought (you don’t have
to immediately jump off the problem-solving cliff), it helps you feel some
measure of control of the problem-solving process. And in these circumstances,
anything that allows an individual some semblance of control or influence helps
reduce personal anxiety or stress.
b. Ask for
Another big problem is the boss’ lack of knowledge of all the other tasks and
projects you likely have on your plate. Or even if aware of your workload and
schedule, she’s only focused on the alleged “meteorite” heading for his
business. Now, replace the recommended emergency action mode with a strong
suggestion to the boss: “Let’s take five minutes to help me reprioritize what
I’m currently working on, so I can give this serious situation the time,
energy, and attention it deserves.” (Hey, you can call this, at least in
your own mind, a five minute “TEA” break.)
In my experience, most bosses like or need to be in control of significant
situations affecting them personally or organizationally. By asking for
priority guidance, you are allowing the boss to transform his or her
helter-skelter state into a more purposeful and focused mindset. You might even
reinforce this process saying in so many words, “I want to make sure we do some
strategic planning and priority readjustment before launching from our
problem-solving cliff; not to do so, down the road, might invite
misunderstanding and mistakes.”
d. Set the Stage
For the Feeling of Importance.
Finally, by asking for assistance, you also will be appealing to his “expertise”
or “experience” (whether wholly valid or not) and certainly his ego, if not
vanity. And remember sociologist philosopher, Ernest Becker’s powerful insight
from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death: The most
important human urge is the desire to feel important!
In addition, I
suspect you won’t be accused of being too dependent on others in an
“emergency.” Rather, you will likely be viewed as a cool-headed problem-solver
who knows how to strategically marshal resources at critical times. You might
say you are developing your “leading from behind” skills; much better than
always running from or with those “seat of the pants on fire.”
"N & N" Tools and
Techniques for Saying "No” (and Meaning It)
Having outlined and
hopefully savored our “leadership lagniappe” (or “baker’s dozen”), we are now
ready for “The Final Five”:
6. Repeat Yourself
For some people, hearing a "No" can be as difficult as it is for others to take
a contrary stance. First, some just won’t believe you; you’ve always been so
“accommodating.” (We won’t mention that you’ve too often felt like a door
mat.) Others will quickly decide that your "No" is a sign of disloyalty or
defiance. These recipients of your "negativity," especially individuals who see
themselves as being so accommodating and self-sacrificing, who have done so much
for you, may feel deprived or betrayed. They are entitled to your siding with
them, if not rewarding them, for their goodness. While claiming their motives
are devoid of self-interest, ironically, you have violated their "just world"
hypothesis – self-righteous attitudes and actions yield the right and
deserved results. Alas, these people are trapped in their own "fairness
fallacy," and want to drag you into their "holier than thou" (or “holy hell”)
What this means is
that your "No" may well be a shock to a demanding or delicate or a delicately
demanding and dysfunctional person. And typically, in a state of shock, our
sensory apparatus begins to glaze over. Or, once the shock has passed, the
receiver of your "No" feels threatened or attacked and now may generate a new
and narrow focus – to guilt-trip or browbeat until they get their way. In such
a scenario, your "message sent is not message (objectively) received."
Direction through Repetition
Clearly, if it's
important to get your message across, then persistence is necessary for
restoring some order and borders to the transaction. In other words, repeat
your message – word for word. If your initial message was objectively clear and
straightforward, don't modify the content out of anxiety or false hopes. Beyond
acknowledging that you would have liked being more helpful, don’t dilute or
soft-sell your “No.” Remember, the message sent was missed or dismissed not
simply due to a misunderstanding of the facts or your perceived faulty logic.
Your “No,” along with its control and status implications, challenges the
receiver’s self-centered expectations and misguided sense of fairness or
entitlement. Remember, you have a track record of being pliable.
Based on the
preceding argument, you should not be surprised by the receiver fumbling or
dropping your "No" message. Second, don't take it personally if the other
person doesn't "get it" at first. Again, calmly repeat your position. If not
careful, your surprise, disappointment, or frustration with the other party’s
“negative’ reaction will contaminate your second, poised and reaffirming
delivery. At best, a reactive message will have an exasperated or impatient
air; at worst, your repetition may reek of a self-righteous or condescending
7. Be Concise and
If your intention is to affirm your position, then saying "No" and your
subsequent explanatory message should be clear and to the point. To borrow from
the Bard, Brevity is (not just) the soul of wit. Being concise sounds
confident; you appear in control if not in command. Adding excess verbiage
(often reflecting psychic baggage) dilutes or obscures the crux of your message,
i.e., one “can’t hear the verbiage from the garbage!” In addition, over-talking
can also undermine your status and erode the perceived strength of your position
and person. Suddenly you are defensively justifying your beliefs or behavior.
Just as unnecessary
words and explanations can obfuscate a clear "No" message, nonverbal dynamics
can also powerfully impact "message sent is message received." If a "No" is
delivered tentatively or meekly, with eyes diverted and shoulders slumping, then
words and body language are incongruent. You'll be lucky to be only accused of
sending mixed messages. Invariably, a passive or ambivalent nonverbal
presentation trumps the spoken word. Conversely, squared shoulders, direct eye
contact along with a clear and firm tone heighten the credibility and potency of
The Bully Boss
Here's an example.
I recall a paralegal being unfairly criticized, if not ridiculed, by a senior
partner attorney to whom she was assigned. Alas, he seemed to enjoy tormenting
subordinates. Most people would not stand up to him. The paralegal was
becoming sick trying to get on the abuser's "good side." On the verge of
quitting, she finally spoke with a more senior colleague. The latter's direct
and concise advice: "Get tough or leave." (The other senior partners were not
ready to take on this Rambo rainmaker.)
The young paralegal
decided to become steely; she was not going to let this jerk drive her off.
While it took practice, she began giving brief, no nonsense answers to this
bully. She carefully modulated her emotional expressiveness; firm, detached,
and business-like was her mantra. In other words, despite the status disparity
between these antagonists, she was no longer being so deferential to the
And big surprise.
No longer able to make the paralegal squirm (at least outwardly), the attorney
lost interest in "the game." This woman eventually left the firm, but on her
terms. Clearly, being concise verbally and in control emotionally can foster
inner resolve and be a source of personal integrity and interpersonal strength.
Take home lesson.
Of course, on the "burnout battlefield," having to employ this survival coping
strategy for extended periods of time may not be healthy for your mind or body.
But this strategic “No-nonsense” position may help you win the short-term
encounter. And you'll be setting limits and boundaries that may enable you,
over time, to win the war, at least symbolically. Finally, you'll have a
greater chance to leave the battlefield under your own powers.
8. Now Ask for
Feedback and Discuss Options.
Once you have
clearly and concisely affirmed your starting (or non-starting) position, you
have a solid base for soliciting input. Two feedback or negotiation
possibilities immediately come to mind: a) discovering and acknowledging the
other's thoughts and feelings about your "No" and/or b) having a discussion
about problem-solving options.
a) Ask for input.
Soliciting or accepting the other's input, especially a counterargument to your
"No," may preempt an open or ongoing power struggle. Counterattitudinal
research indicates that allowing people to argue with you often narrows a
content and relational gap between antagonists. Remember, we rarely just
argue facts or figures; frequently the intensity of an exchange involves
elements of self-esteem and status, and who has discretionary power or
The implied message
of a counterattiudinal challenger might be: "You better realize that I have the
freedom or the control to disagree (actively or passively) with you and your
"No." Or, "Don't think you are better or smarter than me." For example, a
subordinate expressing his or her difference with an authority (or vice versa)
often takes the steam out of issue defiance or domination. Ironically, by
not fighting another's need for control you may help the other loosen the
control reins. And allowing an antagonist to disagree with you may, over
time, help this person come around to your factual or attitudinal viewpoint. As
I like to say:
If we can allow a
person who says, 'Yes, but,' to rebut
Even if they may be
a pain in the…
(But you know what I
We can often get
them to say, 'But…yes!'
b) Discuss and
Remember, in the long run, handling another's criticism or frustration with
openness, calm, and conviction often builds trust. Also, within the framework
of a self-reaffirming and trust-building "No" and post-"No" exchange, the stage
is often set for productive negotiation: Mutual concession and "letting go"
of "the one right way" frees the mind to discover overlooked options or design
novel approaches. As Nobel prize-winning author, Albert Camus, observed:
Once we have accepted the fact of loss [including the feeling of loss of
control or face when confronted with a “No”] we understand that the loved one
[or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky
washed by rain.
If at all possible,
work hard to have both parties experience participatory involvement and input,
along with some sense of status or relief, if not positive outcome. Or, at
least, during this negotiation, the contentious parties must believe that their
points have been truly considered and the concessions or loss of status and
goals are not disproportionately one-sided. My favorite definition of
consensus: each contending party gives up a little for the benefit of the
common goal or greater good.
9. Use Time Out
In the heat of interpersonal conflict, if not outright battle, it's easy to lose
your cool. Maintaining rational thought or expression (including managing
facial scowling, voice tone and volume, finger pointing, etc.) is challenging
when excited or highly emotional, and certainly when feeling under attack.
Remember, you have the option to say, "Right now my position is 'No'" or even,
"I'm not sure. I need to think about this further. I'll get back with you
first thing tomorrow."
Taking a "time out"
is not necessarily retreating in the negative sense, that is, you are not
fleeing with your tail between your legs. Choosing to retreat can be a
meditated option allowing you to reflect on your position and the nature of the
conflict, as well as on any past, resurrected critical voices, grief ghosts, or
simple previous hurts or embarrassments. And, if necessary, it also buys time
for planning a more effective immediate counter and subsequent strategy.
Also, don't kick
yourself for not mustering the perfect comeback to an arrogant or pompous
aggressor. Know that you can recover from this momentary lapse. Have a good
night's rest, formulate your riposte, and you'll nail the jerk in the morning.
Again, taking a time
out means you are clearly setting a boundary, whether you have or have not
articulated a definite "No." And hitting the pause button means you are less
likely to be pressured into an impulsive reaction or decision. You are exerting
some control, yet leaving open some room for negotiation. You present yourself
as neither rigid nor righteous, that is, a know it all. You are not throwing
fuel, i.e., "hot air" on the interpersonal fire. While your antagonist may
still be smoldering, he also has time to ponder his reaction and your position
along with his needs and expectations. A time out can be a "cooling off"
Defusing a Hot Cycle
Let me share the
de-escalation value of a time out, whether mutually or purposefully derived or
not. Anybody ever live in an apartment building? If so, what was the biggest
potential battle zone? How about the laundry room? Sure enough, one day I’ve
brought down my clothes to be washed and all the machines are cycling or
spinning except one. This machine’s cycle has ended, but the clothes are still
inside. So I wait five minutes, and nobody shows. (As an ex-New Yorka,
I believe there is a ten-minute “laundry room” grace period.) Well ten minutes
is rapidly approaching…and I decide to take action.
Naturally, as I’m
removing the clothes, who should walk into the room? It’s their owner, and he’s
not happy. Alas, this guy, perhaps ten years younger, has me by about four
inches and forty pounds, and begins yelling, “Why are you being so aggressive?
Why are you being so aggressive?”
Initially I try to
explain, mentioning the ten-minute wait, but to no avail. He’s not listening;
he’s just enraged, verbally blasting me and physically getting closer. Finally,
I’ve had enough, and using my best “command voice,” declare, “Aggressive?
I’m not the one that’s yelling!” (And believe me, I was tempted to add,
“you bozo” or “like a madman,” but somehow either a higher power or maybe an
awareness of our discrepancy in size helped frame my “I”-message counterpunch.)
In other words, I did not turn “You”-message provocation into a laundry room
conflagration. There are times when discretion is the better part of valor.
Well this finally
slows Mr. Rhino in his tracks. (Sometimes, an irate “injured party” is not
aware how out of control they are; the individual needs to be confronted with
aggressive energy and startled into some reflective awareness.) Anyway, Mr. R.
starts grumbling, gets his clothes, puts them in a dryer, and slams the door on
his way out.
While shaking a bit,
I start my wash and leave. I recall sharing my experience with a retired
neighbor. She empathized, adding that she too has found some of the younger
people in the building inconsiderate when it comes to laundry room etiquette.
minutes later, I’m taking out my wash, transferring it into an empty dryer when
who should walk through the door. And suddenly I’m thinking: “Oh, oh…Round
II.” But no, during our half-hour retreat to neutral corners my antagonist has
had a change of head if not heart. He now says, “You were right. How were you
supposed to know when I was coming down?” Not quite an admission of regret or
an apology, but at least a cessation of hostilities. I thanked him and we went
our separate ways.
Closing Moral of the
Clearly, that thirty minute separation had a “cooling off” effect. Actually,
there are times in the heat of battle when a person has to blow off steam, yet
still be contained before becoming truly combustible, if cooler heads are to
prevail. So how ever it arises, don’t forget the power of a necessary “time
Agreements and Confirm Expectations, Including the Monitoring Process.
As we tackle the
final tip, first let's acknowledge that the preceding steps comprise a rational
problem definition, personal control/affirmation, and mutual negotiation (or at
least needed anxiety reduction or separation) process. Now, after you have put
on the table and expressed your initial "No" along with alternate proposals and
beliefs, expectations and emotions, it is wise to recapitulate your take on the
Also, ask the other
party to put into words his or her understanding of what you won't do and what
you will do. In turn, summarize the other's position and agreement.
Paraphrasing is a powerful tool for closing any remaining gaps between "message
sent and message received." Don't be surprised if you still require some final
feedback volleys to reach consensus. And this "end game" exchange is critical
for getting both parties on the same page regarding expectations: Do both
parties have the same working conception of negotiated action plans and
Returning to our
opening scenario involving the employee putting in more weekend overtime than
his or her colleagues (“N & N” – Part I), here are some monitoring markers:
a) has the manager
placed the issue on the table in a timely manner at a team meeting?
b) does the team
believe that the current project justifies extra-ordinary weekend work or do
people feel they are being compelled to work unnecessary overtime because of a
manager's or team member's inefficiency? and
c) if there is
consensus on the need for this overtime, and a system and structure has been
devised that has group "buy-in," does the negotiated plan, once put into action,
achieve a more equitable distribution in the weekend workload? Surely, this is
the bottom line! (P.S. Who will be the plan monitor and person responsible for
providing the degree of plan effectiveness feedback to the group? If you are
seeking increased group commitment and empowerment, it doesn’t only have to be
Part I of this
three-part series outlined a variety of barriers to saying "No." Obstacles to
setting limits and boundaries ranged from the psychological and interpersonal to
the systemic and cultural. “N & N” – Part II and III outlined and illustrated
ten tips and techniques to help you say "No and to Negotiate." The "N & N Top
1. Clean Up Your
Static to Give a Clear Message
2. Be Empathic yet
3. Use Relevant
Facts; Place Issue in Context
4. Use Assertive "I"s
Not Blaming "You"s
5. Don't Apologize
6. Repeat Yourself
7. Be Brief and
8. Now Ask for
9. Use Time Out
Agreements and Confirm Expectations, Including the Monitoring Process
This last essay
began with a segment on setting limits and refocusing the “big boss.” Then the
final five were outlined. Together, the ten guilt busting, boundary setting,
and bridge building commandments are not just guides for saying "No," disarming
power struggles, and achieving productive consensus. Our "N & N" top ten yield
strategic ideas for strengthening brain-body fitness and for generating uncommon
“synergy” – when individual parts are transformed into integral partners.
And these tools and techniques definitely help one and all…Practice Safe
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar
speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known
for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies
and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and
Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief
Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD
Company. He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing
Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft.
Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft.
Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral
A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service,
the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of
Anger. The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as HR.com,
WorkforceWeek.com, and MentalHelpNet. His award-winning, USA
Today Online "HotSite" – www.stressdoc.com – was called a "workplace
resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's
"Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-875-2567.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2013
Shrink Rap™ Productions