It's okay to say no
A reader asked Carolyn in November for the best way to tell someone no without hurting their feelings. The reader is a recent widow who keeps fielding questions from friends asking to visit (and stay at her home while there). She said she finds houseguests “exhausting” and asked for a way to “tactfully respond” to friends’ requests.
Here’s what Carolyn said:
The first favor you can do yourself — huge favor, massive — is to uncouple “saying no” from “hurting someone’s feelings.” Conflating them is why you feel bad; someone, somewhere, taught you no is mean and yes is nice.
I’m sorry you’re stuck with that legacy.
It’s not too late to change it, though, if you’re ready to.
Start by recognizing that “saying no” and “hurting someone’s feelings” are two different things arising from two separate emotional processes.
When you say yes or no, that is about you and what you want or need. No, thank you, I do not want another helping. Yes, I am free Tuesday. No, I will not chair the committee, thank you for asking. Yes and no are about what you give or don’t give to the world. It’s important to be mindful of others’ feelings in your choices and tone, of course, but beyond that, it’s your emotional process to manage as you see fit.
Hurt feelings are about how someone else receives what you give. That is the other person’s emotional process, and therefore not something you control.
For example, let’s say you refuse a second helping. The person who offered it can hear that and (generally): (1) accept your refusal without giving it another thought; (2) be thrilled because you’re leaving more for her; (3) feel hurt because she thinks you don’t like her cooking enough to have seconds.
Remember, all you did was consult your stomach (or waistband) and say what it asked you to say. All you did was say no. Whether it hurt someone’s feelings was up to that someone (who might also have been trained to think no = bad).
That is, unless you said: “No way, your cooking is unbearable once, much less twice” — in which case you would be saying no and showing hostile disregard for another’s feelings. Even if they’re contained in the same sentence, they’re still two separate things.
You can apply this basic reasoning to your would-be houseguests. From now on, “handle all the people who . . . ask to visit” by figuring out what you want and need, and then communicating that respectfully: “You’re kind to ask, but I am not up to hosting.” You aren’t. That’s okay. It would be regardless, even if you weren’t recently widowed — my condolences.
You can also refuse these self-invitations by extending the invitation you prefer: “I’m not up to hosting, but I’d love your company. I’ll help you find a hotel if you really do want to visit.”
Unlike a guilt-coerced yes — which creates stress, which strains relationships — an honest no defines and defends the limits of your comfort, which then allows you to bring your most generous self to the occasions — and people — you want to say yes to. Nothing mean about that.
When delivering criticism of a friend's SO, stick to the facts
One reader keeps turning down a longtime friend's invites for a "couples date" because they can't stand her "financial vampire" of a boyfriend. The friend says none of their mutual friends ever want to visit, so, the question is: Should the reader tell the friend why?
Here’s what Carolyn said:
Is there any reason not to say to her, at this point, next time she complains that none of your mutual friends ever visits: “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have my own reason. Would you like to hear it?”
And then if she says yes, to tell her you are not comfortable with X, with X representing the least subjective of the complaints you have about her boyfriend.
For example, “He makes my skin crawl” is about as subjective as it gets, but “He has at least six drinks at a clip and then gets belligerent” is a matter of fact. Stick to facts so she doesn’t have room to rationalize it into your problem — even though she might still try to, since that’s the nature of the denial beast.
Make sure you include assurances of your commitment to your friendship and your openness to another interpretation of what you’ve witnessed.
If you’re not doing this already, then please keep an eye out for signs she’s unhappy. The main reason is maybe not as obvious as it’s going to sound: Her boyfriend may be terrible, but if she is happy, then it’s not really anyone’s place to object to her taste in men. There’s no saying, really, what works for someone else.
You can keep saying no to her invitations, of course, but otherwise it’s appropriate to leave a peaceful friend to her choices.
The other reason is that if she is showing signs of distress, talking about those directly is a lot more productive than criticizing the guy, which tends only to make people defensive. An “I noticed you’ve seemed stressed lately about [fact-based item here] — are you okay?” can end up being the dots she needs to start making important connections.
Your brunches are ideal for this, not to mention a compassionate way to stay close.
Know when to butt out
“A Friend in Need” wrote in to Carolyn because they believe their best friend, “Sara,” is married to a closeted gay man. The reader shared this concern with Sara, who expressed thanks for the concern but never discussed it again. The question is: How should “A Friend in Need” raise the issue again?
Here’s what Carolyn said:
Never. Not gently, not roughly, not with discreet tactical brilliance, not ever. That’s how.
And if there were such a thing as boundary school, I’d sentence you to it. Because, oh my wow. This is so not your business.
With the benefit of all doubts firmly in place, I’ll venture you just really want your friend to be happy. And that’s great. But if your idea of helping her be happy includes a first step of having to convince her that she’s unhappy, then that’s your flashing red railroad-crossing barrier, your Do Not Disturb hangtag, your singing telegram reminding you to butt the heck (and everything else) out. If your friend wants your help, she can ask.
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