4 Ways You People Please When You Think You’re Just Being Nice (And What the Nice Thing to do Actually is)

During my last business mastermind group I was discussing what I do and who I serve. I was talking about wanting to work with people pleasers to help them put their needs first and one of the group asked me why I thought people pleasing was a problem; was it not just being nice?

This is something that I often hear when I talk to people about my work and people pleasing; individuals simply see their people pleasing behaviour as being nice/caring/considerate. People pleasing is consistently putting others’ needs before your own. Often it can be hard to spot, as the same behaviour can be people pleasing for one person and not the other.

I see people pleasing as a scale. At one end you have people pleasing behaviours; at the other being completing self-centred, and being nice is in the middle. And when you are meeting your needs and communicating well your behaviours will fall into a bell curve on this scale.

A bell curve is a graph of normal distribution. This means you want majority of your behaviour to fall in the ‘Being nice’ category. Occasionally it will fall into people pleasing or being self-centred, which is fine as no one can be perfect all the time. It starts to become an issue, however, when the bell graph becomes bottom or top heavy. I have also found it can vary across different relationships. For example, I got into some people pleasing habits with my partner when I first gave up my consulting job. I felt guilty because I was at home when he was ‘earning our income’, so compensated by doing all the housework. When working, however, I have always had very clear boundaries about leaving work on time. If the situation required me to work late due to deadlines or a colleague asking for help I would do it, as that’s the nice thing to do, but wouldn’t make it a regular behaviour. My tendency to people please varied greatly depending on the scenario. Below are some of the common people pleasing behaviours disguised as ‘being nice’ and what you can do instead:

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Cancelling your plans to do something for someone else

I recently spoke to someone who was a Nanny and she told me she regularly cancelled her social plans as her client wouldn’t get home on the agreed time. As the conversation unfolded she went from being annoyed about this to being ok with it, telling me her client’s work was very important, busy and unpredictable so there was no way she could stick to the agreed times.

Putting someone else’s plans before your own is common people pleasing disguised as being nice. You will always have a valid reason for why you do it, such as the client’s work in the above example, but a reason alone is not enough to justify always doing this. Occasionally is fine, but if you find this is a regular occurrence the balance needs tweaking.

This is also the case when you have no specific plans. I’d often find myself agreeing to go for a drink with my hubby and his friends after work, then being sat in the pub wishing I was at home watching a box set. Sometimes having no plans is a plan and taking that time for yourself is ok.

How to get back to being nice:

Before you agree to anything or cancel your plans check in if it is really what you want to do. Sometimes a night in the pub with hubby and his friends was great and I was really pleased I went; other times it wasn’t. Only you can know if the new thing is worth changing your plans for.

If it isn’t something you want to do, kindly decline. There are so many ways to say no without using the word no:

“Thanks for the invite but not tonight. Maybe next week”

“Oh sorry I already have something planned I can’t get out of”

“I can’t do then, but how about we do something on another date”

We often feel it is harder to say no when it is work related, but there are still ways you can manage this. Ask the person who is requesting you do something to help you balance your activities:

“I’d really love to help you achieve this but I already have a full day today. Can it wait till tomorrow/next week/another day?”

“If I do [what you’ve been asked to do], I will have to move something else off my to do list to achieve it. Can we discuss how I can manage that?”

“I’m looking at my to do list and it is getting quite long. I am wondering if we can discuss what I should prioritise to ensure nothing is missed”

Offering another solution is another good way to do this:

“I have a lot on at the moment, and don’t think I’d be able to give this the attention it needs. Could [insert name of someone else capable of completing it] do it for you?”

“To do this I would need to miss [event/meeting/call]. Could you possibly do that for me so I can do this for you?”

Both of the above options use questions to create a dialogue. If there is something that you can’t manage that way be clear and specific as soon as you know you can’t to do what is being asked of you. So in the above example with the Nanny I would recommend telling the client in the morning before they leave for work that you need to finish at a certain time.

“I have plans this evening which means I won’t be able to stay any later than [insert time]”

It is important to be clear with this as soon as you know it to be the case, and to be as specific as you can. So in the above scenario if you knew on the Monday you had plans for the Thursday, tell the person on the Monday, then remind them again on the Wednesday and Thursday. Ensure you include the time you have to leave. Saying “I need to leave on time” is less effective than saying “I need to leave at 7pm”. Being upfront and specific allows the other person to plan accordingly.

Not making decisions

A story I love to retell about my closest friends is from when we were at Uni and I asked them to decide where to go next on a night out. I simplified it, gave them two options and told them they had until I returned from the toilet to make the decision. When I returned they had made a decision, which surprised me as they often wouldn’t, so we went to that place. When I asked them why they made their decision they informed me they had actually flipped a coin to do it. They’d rather leave it to the chance of a coin flip than make the decision themselves!

So often I hear the response “I don’t know, what do you want?” when asking people what they want. Put a couple of people pleasers together and they never go anywhere apart from around in a circle stating that same sentence! And I will hold my hands up and admit I do it too. You don’t want to make the decision for fear it will be wrong, that you will have a terrible time because of the decision you made and will feel bad for this. And by letting the other person/people make the decision you feel you are ensuring they will enjoy themselves as they are doing what it is they want to do.

But this behaviour often goes beyond just working out the small stuff such as social plans and which take away to order. Decisions about what to do with your life, if you want to go on a date with that person and whether you should stay in a relationship/job/friendship all become impossibly difficult. You end up going with the flow until you end up in a job/relationship/house you hate just because you didn’t want to make the decision.

How to get back to being nice:

Make a decision! Start with the small stuff first before building to the bigger things. And when I say make a decision I don’t mean the following scenario:

Friend/partner/colleague: “What do you want to do for lunch?”

You: “I don’t mind. What do you want to do?”

Friend/partner/colleague: “How about we go to the Thai place?”

You: “I don’t really like it there.”

Friend/partner/colleague: “OK. How about the café down the road?”

You: “Hmmmm not sure. My food was cold last time we went.”

This is not making a decision; this is vetoing someone else’s decision. Making a decision is answering the first question with an option of your own. If that still seems too daunting start by reduce the number of options. There are two ways this can be done. You can either ask the other person to give you two options (as I did with my friends when we were at uni) and decide from them, or you can provide to options yourself and ask the other person to pick one of them.

I always think it is important to remember with these decisions that people can say no to them and they’re not set in stone. So if you respond to the above example with a suggestion to go to KFC and the other person says no, that’s OK. You made your decision, they don’t have to agree with it. And then if they do agree with it, and you go to KFC but the line is crazy long, you don’t have to stay there. You can abort the fried chicken and get a sandwich instead!

Hopefully as you start making decisions you will grow more confident with this skill and making bigger decisions won’t seem so bad. With bigger decisions you can ask for more time to consider them. The decision doesn’t need to be made on the spot. And you can talk it through with someone (another great use of a life coach), or do some pro/cons work if required to help, whatever works for you. As soon as you know you’re unsure about a big decision voice that; don’t wait until the damage has been done.

When I first moved to London hubby had found this lovely flat. It was way outside our budget but he assured me we could find flatmates to share it with and that would make it super affordable. I wasn’t convinced; I didn’t want to take on that big a financial obligation when I wasn’t working, and didn’t have a job lined up. But I agreed to go ahead with it, even though I felt uneasy about it. We did eventually find flatmates but we did not get along well. We were totally different people who felt very differently about how the flat should be looked after. It ended up being my relationship which suffered most because of that. I got angry about the situation and blamed Dave for getting us into that scenario. Which wasn’t fair, because it was a joint decision. I could have told him how I felt at numerous points but chose to just go along with it, which makes me more to blame than him.

Responding to people’s emails/texts/calls straight away

Do you leave your email account open all day and as soon as a notification pops up open the new mail? Or reply to a text while you’re talking to someone else? Call someone back as soon as you see their missed call? Being available all the time, instantaneously, has become part of normal culture. Improved technology allows us to access multiple methods of being connected with a touch of a few buttons. But does this mean its the way it should be? How many times have you been out at a restaurant and see that couple who are both on their phones rather than talking to each other? Or maybe you haven’t as you’re part of that couple. Not always, but this is often a sign of putting someone else’s needs first. If you feel pressured to respond to something as soon as you see it that is an indication you’re putting the other person’s need over yours.

If you are out for dinner with your partner you do not have to reply to that text/WhatsApp/email from work. You have the right to wait until the appropriate time to respond. Responding to your friend straight away doesn’t make you any better or worse a friend than if you respond a couple of hours later. The important people in your life should respect that you’ll not always be available for them when they want you to be. Electronic communications are the smallest form of understanding this principle.

This works the other way as well. The people in your life don’t have to respond to your communications as soon as you make them. If the person you’re dating/partner/friend doesn’t respond to your WhatsApp straightaway (even though you can see they have read it) it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Sure they might be playing games, but they also might have a deadline at work which means they are in the zone and want to wait until they have the time to respond properly. How quickly you or someone else responds to a message is not a validation of anything.

How to get back to being nice:

One thing that made the biggest difference for me was turning off the notifications on my phone for email and social media. I left them on for WhatsApp but silenced them so don’t hear when they come in. This way I have control over what information I am looking at on my phone. When I am working it goes face down on the desk until I am taking a break. I actually enjoy now the anticipation of looking in my apps and seeing what has come in while I was away. You can also schedule times where you don’t have access to your phone, such as a no phones at the dinner table rule.

A step further for this is to schedule set times to check email and messages. Then, unless it is those set times, close any communication apps on your computer and send your phone straight to voicemail. You can put an out of office or voicemail in place stating the times you check your messages so people know when to expect a reply, which is nicer than them just waiting around for your response, especially if it is something urgent. You can include a different way to get in touch with you if it is an emergency in your out of office so you won’t miss the critical things, but 9 times out of 10 it can wait. I know it seems daunting doing this at work, so check with your boss first if it is ok.

One caveat I’d include here is to check if ignoring these things is actually going to help you meet your needs. Sometimes being on the end of the phone might actually meet you needs more than turning off all notifications. If, for example your wife is due to go into labour, putting your phone on silent and out of your grasp will probably end up being more stressful than knowing you have it on the loudest ringer and on your desk. If you are doing something like this around other people I would always recommend you let them know what is going on, even when it is something more trivial than the birth of a child. Hubby would often check his work emails outside of office hours, something I used to get really annoyed about, until he pointed out knowing what has come in helps him feel less stressed. As soon as he told me it made him feel better, through discussion together, we agreed that looking at them first thing in the morning would help him meet this need of his, and give us uninterrupted time in the evening together which met needs for both of us.

Letting your friends call you to talk about themselves and never asking you how you are

This final one is something I feel quite passionately about. I remember being out for lunch with a friend once, and about an hour in I realised she hadn’t even asked me how I was. I had opened with the question and she had spent the whole time since telling me about what was going on in her life. I waited for the rest of that lunch for a question about me to arise and it never did. The conversation was completely one-sided, me asking the questions and her answering at length. I reflected on this and noticed this was a pattern that had been happening for months in this friendship. And after this dawned on me the friendship soon petered out.

People pleasers are some of the most caring people you will meet. They have a strong need to ensure everyone is ok and get great validation from helping people. For this reason, they are often the shoulder to cry on, the best confidant, the go to person when you are having a difficult time. Although lot of people feel good when they are there for someone in need, with people pleasers it comes at a cost to their own wellbeing. They can get caught in the middle of friends who are having a disagreement, having to listen to both sides complain, without consideration for how they feel in the middle. Or they have no one to turn to when they need help themselves, as they are used to everyone else coming to them with their issues. Carrying around everyone else problems, and you own, is exhausting and this can lead to burnout.

How to get back to being nice:

If someone never asks you how you are I would always suggest you move on from them. It is not worth having people in your life who only take, take, take. But I recognise that moves more toward the self-centred b*tch rather than being nice. So if you don’t want to cut that person out of your life completely, start by spending less time with them and more with people who do ask you about yourself.

When you identify those people who do ask those questions make sure you start opening up to them. If they ask you how you are don’t just say “I’m fine.” Expand a bit. Not just when you’re having a bad day but also when you’re having a good day. Get used to talking about yourself (people pleasers aren’t usually comfortable with doing it.)

If there is a friend in your life that always talks about themselves, but it hasn’t always been that way, maybe bring it up with them. This can be done I a jokey way (“cor we’ve been talking for 45 minutes now and I haven’t even told you about what happened to me today yet”) or in a caring way (“I noticed the last couple of times we’ve spoken you’ve had a lot you’ve needed to get off your chest. Is everything ok?”) or if you’re good enough friends in the blunt way (“I’ve noticed the last couple of times we spoken we have only talked about your problems. I’d like to tell you about what is going on for me too you know.”) You know your relationships best and therefore the best approach to take. Sometimes being blunt is the nicest way to deal with things, as long as it is delivered compassionately. Saying “I am sick of listening to you whine on and on about dating” will not be received as well as “you’ve been talking about this date for the last 30 minutes now, can we move on?”

So there are the 4 ways you have probably been people pleasing without realising it. If you do this occasionally, don’t despair, that is part of your normal distribution on the people pleasing curve. If you feel your curve is skewed too far towards the people pleasing end then please get in touch and let me help you move back towards being nice.

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How does people pleasing show up for you? How do you get the balance back when this happens?

Ruth xx


Originally published at www.idealbalancecoaching.co.uk on October 27, 2016.

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