by David Spero, RN
Saying no is part of “assertiveness,” which means stating clearly what we want, need, or believe without attacking others. Assertive communication helps people understand one another better and get along better. The essence of assertiveness is the “I” statement, focusing on what “I” think or feel instead of what “you” have done wrong.
Here’s an “I” statement: “I’m really frustrated that the car wasn’t back when you said it would be. I hate to be late, and this really stressed me out. It would have helped me if you had at least called.” The comparable “You” statement might be: “You really messed me up by not returning the car, just like you always do. You don’t seem to care about my needs at all.”
Both statements contain the same information. But which one is more likely to get a constructive response and help solve the problem? “You” statements are experienced as attacks; they almost force the other person to be defensive. “I” statements let the other person know how you feel and how that person’s actions and words affect you. You’re much more likely to get a positive response.
If saying no is a big problem for you, you might want to take an assertiveness training program, which many health centers offer. It might also help if you and those close to you get individual, couples, or group therapy to improve communication skills.
In the self-management classes I lead, I teach that learning to find, ask for, and accept help is the most important skill anyone with a chronic condition needs. But in American culture, asking for help tends to be discouraged, and people think that needing help means they are weak. They worry about imposing on other people or fret about how they will repay the favor. In the American myth of self-reliance, you’re not supposed to need help. According to psychologist Darcy Cox, “For some people, asking for help means admitting they really have a problem. Some even tell me, ‘if I have to ask for help, it means that arthritis has won.’”
In reality, though, most people want to help. It makes them feel good about themselves. As one member of a support group in San Francisco told me, “By not asking, you’re denying the other person an opportunity to achieve their kindness potential.” None of us are truly independent; people helping each other is the way life works.
Here are a couple of tips on asking for help. Don’t get all your help in one place (as from a spouse). You might burn that person out and miss out on other, more effective sources of help. Try to have a team of friends, relatives, and professionals who can assist with various needs. You don’t have to explain why you need the help, either. Most people don’t want to hear a sob story. If your fingers won’t open a jar, you can just ask, “Could you please open this jar for me?” There’s no need to tell them about what your last x-ray showed.
Be specific about what you want. The handbook Living a Healthy Life With Chronic Conditions warns against vague requests such as, “I’m moving to a new house. Could you help?” It’s too open-ended. People might think they’re signing up for a month’s work. But if you said, “I’ve got a couch, a few chairs, and a dozen boxes to move. It will probably take about two hours,” most people would be happy to help.
Be polite. Shirley Lens says that when she asks a stranger to help her load her walker into her car trunk, she always smiles and says, “Please” and gives them a warm thank you. Sincere thanks go a long way toward repaying people.
Communication problems are so common that thousands of therapists make good livings helping people communicate better. But it’s really not that difficult. Becoming more open about your emotions, wants, and needs takes practice, but it gets easier with time and the rewards are terrific. You will reduce your stress and become a more positive person to be around, someone people like to help. Avoiding mind reading, using “I” statements, saying “no” when appropriate, practicing active listening, and reaching out to others for help will make life easier for you and the people you care about.
Last Reviewed on June 13, 2012
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