Monday, October 24, 2011

The Art of the "No"

When should you turn down a request for help?
Photo by Tungphoto

I confess to having a weak spot for a person in need.  I've certainly had to rely on the kindness of others more than once in my life, and I like having the opportunity to pay it back whenever I can.  Since I generally don't have a lot of cash handy, I usually offer my time.

Here's the problem with that.

I sometimes forget that time is just as valuable a commodity as that green paper you keep in your wallet.  (Notice I said that you keep in your wallet.  There's certainly none of it in mine.)  And others forget that work at home doesn't equate play at home.

Recently I got myself into a situation where I was way over my head.  A friend asked for help and I did my darndest to oblige.  A month turned into three months and I soon found myself exhausted and frustrated by the favor I was doing.  And I had no idea how to get myself out of it, since their livelihood depended on my assistance.

I was complaining and moaning about it, but I couldn't find the guts to simply say "no."  Or rather, I did, but the friend came back with a counter offer, and I said "okay," cursing myself the entire time.

Finally last week I had an epiphany.  I was putting my friend's family's needs over my own family's needs and certainly far above my own needs.  A favor was fast turning into a full time job.  I took a day to get my guts together and then the next day I sat her down, ready to hand her my awful verdict.

And got the surprise of my life.  She had already solved the problem in a way that would no longer require my assistance. She had already realized that she was asking for too much and had taken the steps to fix the situation, not wanting to feel like she was taking advantage of me.  I was incredibly relieved, since I was worried that saying "no" could put a strain on the friendship.  But instead, she gets to keep her job and I get my life back and all's well that ends well.

So what does this have to do with writing?

1.  If you work at home, before you agree to help out with a volunteer commitment that is likely to take up your time, remember that the keyword is "work."  Any job you take on that doesn't directly contribute to your income (and even some that do contribute to your income) is likely to cause your income and productivity to take a hit.  Trying to recoup that income is likely to leave you stressed and exhausted.

2.  Before agreeing to help out, consider the reality of the situation.  How much time is this really going to take?  Will helping out cost me money?  In my case, I learned that four kids really are not just as easy as two, and feeding the ravenous hordes was digging into my grocery bill.

3.  Negotiate.  Sometimes a trade can be more valuable than cash.  When someone needs assistance and can't offer you money, try to set up a barter system.  Everyone has a talent.  Sometimes a favor in the future can be beneficial.

Just to be straight -- I'm not saying never help out a friend in need and never volunteer.  Volunteerism is good.  The world would be a better place if people gave of their time and money more freely.  But do so on your own terms and don't overwhelm yourself with duties.  Burning out benefits no one.

I actually just offered my help in another arena last night.  I'll probably never be an expert on the art of saying "no."  But I did do a much better job assessing the time and energy commitment.  And if it gets to be too much, I will back out gracefully, standing firm in my decision.

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