Skip to main content

Four Steps to Change an Old Pattern

My client’s sister invited him to come visit her. Although It’s a nice offer, he doesn’t want to go, for a dozen good reasons. But he dreads the blow-back he’s going to get when he tells her no.

His sister has always been the squeaky wheel in the family: the one whose demands everyone learned to accommodate so they could have some peace. My client thought his sister might mature out of it, or that he himself might grow into someone who was less cowed by her tantrums.

Alas, no. Old patterns, particularly those learned in childhood, die hard. But they can die. It is possible to replace them with new patterns that serve everyone better. It just takes a plan and the confidence and commitment to see it through.


Confidence comes from a clear understanding of what’s going on. Provided his sister is mentally healthy, what’s going on when she flips out is that an intense, high energy person is having feelings.

Her temperament (intense, high energy) is as unchangeable as her eye color, so accept it. And feelings are a part of life here on earth. They don’t need to be solved. They will pass on their own. They won’t break her, and they won’t break you, either.


Your commitment is to say no when you mean no. You have ample evidence that saying yes for the sake of artificial harmony hasn’t worked: it hasn’t made anyone happy, including her. Time to try something else.

The Plan

First, be clear about your answer. If you are wobbly, she’ll perceive it and try to exploit the opening through argument, guilt-tripping, and a noisy, messy scene.

When his sister extended the invitation at issue, my client’s immediate internal response was no. From now on, trust that. Let it be your answer without second-guessing it. Don’t, for the sake of harmony, try to talk yourself into a yes. Chances are high that you will resent it, and your resentment will leak out in other ways.

If, however, you’re not clear about your answer, that’s okay. It’s okay to need more information or time to think it through. Questions that I find helpful when I’m not sure what I want to do are: What’s the best that could happen? What’s the worst? What’s most likely? Average those answers and trust what you come up with, even if it’s not the answer the other person wants to hear.

Four Steps

  1. Acknowledge the good intention of the offer. Don’t say it is unless it’s true, though.

2. Brevity and clarity. Keep the reasons for your no as brief and clear as you can. It’s kind, and it gives her less to argue with.

3. Welcome her feelings. . .Yes, really, welcome them. You can agree with her feelings all day long! Of course, she’s upset! She really wanted you to say yes! It’s hard to be disappointed! And the answer is no.

Note: Use “and” instead of “but.“ Why? “But” negates everything that came before and puts all the emphasis on the disappointing part of the sentence. Compare:
– “You’re upset. You really wanted to do this with me. And the answer is no.”
– “You’re upset. You really wanted to do this with me, but the answer is no.”
Do you feel the difference?

. . . And don’t take the bait. Yes, weclome her feelings. Yes, acknowledge them. And, no, do not listen to the content of her arguments. Don’t take the bait.

Normally, I encourage people to listen to criticism, as there may be some truth to it. But this is a different case. Right now, the arguments are not the point. The feelings are. She is having uncomfortable feelings, and she wants you to make them go away by changing your mind. Though that provides a temporary relief from the onslaught, it leaves you holding the bad feelings.

A useful image for me in this circumstance is to pretend she’s a hurricane: you don’t try to catch the wind, you let it blow on past you.

4. Stay with her. Even though you’d probably love to run away as soon as you tell her no and avoid the ensuing storm, don’t. Stay with her. By doing that, you normalize disagreements between people who love each other. You show her they are not dangerous or threatening. You show her that it’s safe for her to have feelings with you – even strong, uncomfortable ones.

It isn’t easy, but it is simple. This plan, if implemented with confidence (she won’t break!) and commitment (she may turn up the volume at first, but don’t lose heart!), will work, and you’ll all be better for it.

Leave a Reply