My friend called me the other day while her toddler shouted, “NO!” in the background. She wondered why toddlers are really good at saying, “no” but many adults have a tough time doing the same.
I’ve been thinking about this question and have some ideas about why we lose the ability to state our needs as clearly as a toddler. When my children say, “I’m hungry” even if we were in the middle of something and, “I don’t want to do that. Not doing it,” I’m often envious of their ability to state their needs so clearly.
I believe the two main reasons many of us have a hard time clearly speaking up are that we want to steer away from conflict and our negative core beliefs convince us that stating our needs is more trouble than it’s worth.
The word “conflict” really is a complex one: some experiences of conflict end peacefully and some end in violence. Many of my clients say, “I don’t like conflict.” Why is this? Conflict can be quite productive and helpful sometimes – it all depends on your personal experience of conflict as you were growing up, and how able you feel to let go of the other person’s reaction to the tricky situation.
Lets define conflict by over simplifying it. In general terms, conflict is when a person or group needs to tell another person or group something that is expected to cause tension. The tension can causes people to experience physical and/ or emotional intensity, which can feel uncomfortable. It’s this uncomfortable feeling that many seek to avoid. However if people keep at it and work through the feelings, everyone can come out okay on the other side.
How the adults in our childhood lives handled disagreements often becomes how we handle conflict when we become adults, too. If we were taught that conflict causes aggression, violence, drinking, shouting, or stonewalling (when someone refuses to address the situation or speak with you), we’re likely to say what we need to in order to keep the peace. We might even say things to please another person to prevent potentially emotionally or physically painful interactions.
As I mentioned earlier, negative core beliefs influence our behaviour and change our ability to say, “No, I know that you need me to do this thing right now but I just can’t.” If we have come to believe that speaking up is a negative thing, we’ll stop doing it. (I know my eBook is about reducing Tantrums, but I dedicated the first section to understanding Core Beliefs and believe it’s a good read for anyone. Isn’t conflict a kind of adult-tantruming?)
We might also believe that the other person’s reaction to our words is our fault, but it really isn’t. How another person reacts to moments when we say, “no” or use our words is not actually our responsibility. Sure, it IS our responsibility to say, “no” as kindly as we can but if the other person doesn’t have the ability stay cool and calm to talk about it or accept our words, that’s a reflection of their own set of core beliefs, their communication skills, and their ability to control that reptilian part of the brain that gets triggered in tricky moments.
This is the dynamic that toddlers don’t know about. When they shout, “no” or “I’m hungry” they don’t expect others to freak out on them – they expect to get their way or some food.
As they get older, they watch the adults in their lives interact with each other and monitor how it goes for them to see what happens when someone uses their words with another. If that all goes well, the child will continue to do the same: to say when there’s a need that isn’t being met or an aversion or dislike to doing something.
If speaking isn’t responded to with support, children will keep trying to say what they need until they reach a point of futility where they give up doing so. This is when people inadvertently learn that the impact of saying “no” hurts them more than it helps them – or does it?
I view the tension of conflict or needing to say “no” as a black, goopy ball. If we need to speak up, but don’t, we keep that ball inside us to slosh around and stick to our guts. If we do speak up, we give the ball away. Either that ball is going to be caught by someone else or together everyone can melt it down to nothing (with care, empathy, and listening).
Just like anything, it starts with practice. Identify when you want to say “no” and give it a try with someone you know has a balanced disposition. After the interaction, consider what went well and what you might try differently next time. Then congratulate yourself for your act of bravery.
Try not being passive aggressive if that’s a pattern for you, like just not returning an email if you’d like to say “no” to an invitation. Respond to that email with a polite no. I often receive invitations from PR companies, offers to receive products from brands, requests to speak, or requests to read and review books. Instead of just not responding, I started saying, “Thank you for thinking of me but I’m going to say a grateful ‘no’ right now due to my full schedule.”
Try people out! They might be more accepting and gracious than you expect. Many of us understand when our plates are full and don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. Most people are able to be compassionate and understanding.
I also think our toddlers can be our teachers when it comes to stating our needs. Watch how they do it without thinking too much about others. They are certainly good at putting themselves first. We can combine their expertise at speaking up with the empathetic words we have learned from experience to put our needs back at the top of the priority list while being mindful of the other person/ people involved.
Do you have any questions or comments? Please write those here or over on my Facebook page.