Learning How to Say No.

My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth... My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
— Mary Oliver

I used to joke that the four most difficult words in the world were: Yes, No, Hello and Goodbye. I think I said it jokingly because it’s easier to take in that way. I thought I would start today with the first two and tackle the second two in a day or two.

Yes and No. They go together. These words are the lynchpins of decisions and commitments. These two words decide more about your time and how you will spend your days than any other words in your vocabulary. I have done many workshops with groups on ‘How to say, “No”’ and “How to Prioritize (make lists of things that you say yes and no to) and I can say that learning to say Yes and learning to say No is a lifelong skill. You think you have it and you have to relearn it again.

One of the things that I have noticed is that Yes is often seen as ‘good’ and it is the word where people get a helper’s high of ‘aren’t I wonderful for saying Yes to that?!’ Yes can be downright addictive. Good, helpful, kind people say Yes. Capable, competent and hard-working people say Yes. I want to be good, helpful, kind, capable, competent and hardworking, so of course I will say Yes! “Sure I’ll make homemade Ukrainian eggs for the first grade fair!” “Yes, of course I can go over that report before I leave.” “Yes, I can be on your board (committee, program, team).”

The problem isn’t that we say Yes. The problem is that we believe Yes and No are separate states. We believe we get equal numbers of both of them. We forget that every single time we say Yes we are also saying No. If I say Yes to your request, then I am automatically saying No to what I might have done with that time, or the flexibility I might have had. There is no right or wrong here. It is just a statement of fact. If I join your committee that meets every other Tuesday night, then I am saying No to whatever else I might have been doing every other Tuesday night.

It is what I call the invisible No behind every Yes that gets us in trouble. Because we are mostly good at saying Yes to other people and No to ourselves and this imbalance builds up until there’s an internal revolt or all-out burnout. I have worked with so many people who say that they have no time for themselves. When they talk about making changes in their lives they feel stuck because they have said Yes to so many things that they are now committed to there is no time for a Yes for themselves . All the Yes’s belong to others, all the No’s belong to me.

No gets a bad reputation. I believe that because No is the trademark of the toddler “No!!” we see No as immature. We see No as just one small step beneath a tantrum. We see No as a form of aggression—as the beginning of a fight. Yes is a word that helps us feel close to someone. Yes helps us bond with them, it says ‘I’m with you.’ But No, not so much. No says, "Sorry, I’m with me and you are on your own with that." No is a reminder that we are separate—which we all are anyway—but No wrecks the illusion Yes so nicely creates.

But there really is a mature No. A No said with the intention of realistically assessing the situation and the resources. A mature No doesn’t negate the wish, the ‘I would love to be able to do that’ but it recognizes that if I did say Yes, I would be over my limit somewhere. A mature No recognizes that while I would love to be seen as the most helpful person on the planet by saying Yes, I need to say No so that I keep my life on track right now.

One of the best ways to learn this is to find a person in your world who is a guru of the mature No. Watch your friends and co-workers. I have such a friend and I have learned more from her than any course or book or piece of good advice. It is really helpful to watch it in person. When you watch it in person you learn a couple of things. The first is that when someone says No, nothing bad actually happens. The sky doesn’t fall. No one completely freaks out. No one runs out of the room crying. It’s just a No. And then the next sentence happens and the next. And people move on and figure things out.

The second, and possibly most important, thing you learn from watching people say a mature No is that you suddenly realize that they are making an informed decision. Their ability to say No changes the way you hear their Yes. If they can say No, it means their yes isn’t just compliance or martyrdom. You don’t have to worry about asking them anything and feeling like you need to do the work of figuring out if they will be okay if you ask them to do this. When someone can say both No and Yes, you experience their Yes as more trustworthy and you experience the relationship as more trustworthy. It is a paradoxical experience, especially if you have been living your life as if Yes is the only good response. It turns out that the ability to say both Yes and No is even better.

And before I get a raft of letters telling me I don't understand "I have to say Yes to my ____ (fill in the blank: Boss, Child, Spouse, Mother-in-Law...)" just know that I totally understand that there places where we don't have the choice to say No or we would never make that choice. That's fine and part of the way the world works. But that means that you have to be even more mindful of your other Yes's because all of them aren't optional. You need to be mindful of the ones that are. You need to examine your assumptions about what is optional or not. You may even have to have conversations to check on these assumptions and you might be surprised by the outcomes.

So the purpose of this blog is not to send you all out screaming NO! The purpose is to have you asking yourself the question when you get a request: If I say Yes to this, what I am saying No to? If I Say No to this, what do I gain, what do I lose? If I say Yes to this, can I actually meet the commitment in a way that meets my standards? What of this particular request could I say Yes to and feel good about?

And see if you can’t practice some small No’s to others and some small Yes’s to yourself. See what it feels like. Tell people you are working on this and get support. Expect it to feel bumpy and awkward at first. Expect to be a bit disappointed at the experience of saying No. Remember that saying Yes is the feeling of looking good in someone else’s eyes. So when you say No, you don’t get this lovely hit of the ‘I’m a good person’ drug. You will need to be extra supportive of yourself as you learn to say No. Have a buddy you can call and get some kudos when you take the risk.

Through both Yes and No you will find your edges and the edges of others. Sometimes you will say Yes and it won’t work out for you or someone else. Sometimes you will say No and it won’t work out for you or someone else. The important thing is to stay in the conversation—with the other person, but also with yourself. Being able to say No brings you more fully into the conversation. It makes all relationships more whole. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016