How to Say NO

shiv with milipede
Definitely say no to this.

By John

No. It’s a powerful word. It’s a declaration that often comes from deep within – a primal response to an unwanted state. It can be wielded mercilessly by two-year-olds and spontaneously blurted by protective parents. It’s a boundary word – setting limits with others, (“No, I don’t want to smell that”), and also with yourself (“No, I’m not going to eat a 7th donut hole.”)

It’s also a word that many of us have tragically forgotten.

Winston Churchill famously stated, “Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No’.” (or, possibly it was the excessive pillaging and plundering from Mr. Great?)

Whether facing an imminent invasion from history’s most famous conqueror, or simply facing down a donut, no doubt saying ‘no’ can be a hard thing to do.

Many say yes when they really want to say no. Why? There’s a whole host of reasons.

  • Out of guilt.
  • Or desire for acceptance
  • Or fear of missing out
  • Or wanting to be seen as a ‘can-do’ person
  • Or because of a desire to serve others well
  • Or to stay busy – to avoid silence, or home, or who knows.
  • Or maybe it’s some combination of all of these,
  • Or maybe we don’t even know why.

My Relationship with ‘No’

I’ve enjoyed the word ‘no’ as far back as I can remember. I say no as easily as most say yes. It has mostly served me well, though not without challenges. As we shared in a previous post, the word caused some disagreements early in our marriage. I said ‘no’ to everything and Julie said ‘yes’ to everything. So together we said ‘yes’ to conflict. But we figured out a way to navigate this by getting away for a weekend to hammer out our values (read how you can too). We try to repeat a variation of this every year, with some years more thorough than others. This year we’re digging down deep again, being our 20th year of marriage together.

My wife and mom have repeatedly observed and admired my ability to say ‘no’. And they have often prodded me to share encouragement and ideas to help others say no. So here’s an introduction on how to say ‘no.’

WHY it’s Important to SAY NO

My philosophy on saying no is that by saying no to the litany of outside things that come our way, you’re saying yes to some very important things like,

Margin

Space to create and think

Future opportunities

Yourself

Your own family

Sanity

You have to learn to say no in order to be able to say yes. In fact, by saying no, you’re actually saying yes as well. Just as when you say yes to everything, you’re also saying no to many other things.

Different types of Nos

So, how does one say ‘no’?

There are the mechanics – the actual wording of saying ‘no.’ This is important because it can make or break your response. Done the wrong way, it can leave you looking like an unhelpful self-absorbed jerk. Or it can lack clarity, making it seem like you’re really interested when you’re not. Sometimes we might even be tempted to lace our ‘no’ with a little white lie to ease the pain of delivery. But that often leads to problems down the road.

But done the right way, a well delivered ‘no’ shows respect and appreciation for the asking party. It makes clear your intentions and desires, without overstating or over explaining. It leaves both parties on firmer ground than before the conversation.

I once asked a guy to do an interview on a topic I was researching. He said no because of two other commitments he was facing. I counter-responded, thinking I was helping, with a solution to these challenges. He then responded that he just can’t right now. That left me wondering what was really going on – did he not like me, or was he afraid to talk about the topic? It would have been much better to just say on the front end, “I’m not doing interviews on that topic right now, but I’ll reach back out if I change my mind.” – ok, fair enough. Moving on.

Conversely, 10 years ago I reached out to Internetainers Rhett and Link about creating some videos for a marriage seminar I was working on. The series desperately needed a sprinkle of levity and they seemed the perfect fit. I had worked with Rhett’s brother, so had a personal connection. It seemed like my vision for the project gelled well with what they were already creating, so I figured it would just be a matter of haggling the price. Rhett listened to my proposal and called back a few days later and said, “We’re saying no to almost everything right now to focus on creating videos for our YouTube channel.” Cool. Makes sense. Well, sort of. I mean good luck with that working out… (As of this week they have about 25 million subscribers across four channels).

I was sad he declined, but appreciated how he approached it. And I could respect why he said no. Yet I knew he wasn’t coming back around later to possibly say yes. We both quickly moved on.

There are many elements to the wording of a well delivered ‘no.’ But this post won’t be covering the mechanics (another time). That’s not the best starting point. We first have to dig a little deeper.

Where to Start

We must begin by digging deeper and discovering a genuine desire, willingness, or motivation to say ‘no.’ You have to want to say ‘no’ before figuring out how to say ‘no.’

And to do that you have to start by acknowledging something very important.

You have to come to believe that your personal discretionary time is of great value. It’s not just of some value, it is of tremendous value. In fact, it is more valuable than anything else you have. Because your time is the most valuable thing you have. So what you do with it is important.

Don’t blow past this. Go back and read the previous paragraph. It’s critical you wrestle with this before moving on.

I’ve heard many say “I can’t say no since I don’t have anything written on my calendar.” But why wouldn’t you default to the opposite? Flip it and say, “I can’t say yes since I don’t have anything written on my calendar – my personal discretionary time is too valuable.”

You are worth it. You have to begin by recognizing that you are worth investing in and caring for and prioritizing. I know you have bosses, deadlines, family, children, spouses, pets and plants all putting demands on you, but if you are a frazzled, haggled, ball of hot-mess, what good are you to any of them?

By learning to say ‘no’ you gain some important things:

1. SANITY: Earlier this year I was asked to give a series of talks at a youth conference. I was flattered to be asked and very interested in accepting, but a little voice whispered ‘no’ in the back of my mind. There were many good reasons to say yes: I LOVE doing this kind of thing, especially with a younger audience, and liked the topics. But I’ve learned to listen to this impulse and take the time to deal with it.

The opportunity was good, but it would have required time to develop some new messages. This wasn’t a big deal, but also the schedule was bumped right up against another big commitment. I knew it would create stress at a time I didn’t need it or have as much margin to deal with it. So I eventually said no.

A few months later I was driving past the venue, having forgotten all about the event, and there it was taking place. Banners were up. People were spilling out of the doors during a break. My immediate thought was, “I’m SO glad I said no!” I could have said yes, it would have worked out. But it would have added stress and instead I added sanity.

2. MARGIN: Imagine reading a book with zero margin. It wouldn’t work. Publishers know this too. Don’t you think they would love to fill up every blank spot on the page with ink? But they don’t, because no one would read that book. It would stress you out just to look at a page like that. Why? A book needs margin to function properly and you do too. In fact, I’d say that life doesn’t work properly without margin.

Henry Thoreau has compared himself to a chicken. In order to produce an egg (words), she has to have the margin to roam in a field and peck. A businessman might walk past a field of chickens and say, “What are these lazy chickens doing? They need to be put to work instead of just standing around. They should be laying eggs all the time!” But you can’t produce without margin. Words or eggs. And there are limits to how many good eggs or words one could produce. Constant busyness does not increase quality production. In fact, it usually produces the opposite result.

Without margin, you’ll eventually short circuit. In fact, most of the times I’ve found myself stressed, angry, or short with others, it’s because I’ve trying to stack too many things back-to-back without proper margin.

Even Jesus created margin in his life. You think Jesus would just go all out without stopping. You would think he would heal every single person he could and be as busy as possible. But he did get tired, and hungry. He often said no. He didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t rush about when the disciples told him he had to. He found times alone to pray. He sat by a well by himself and took time to talk with a woman. He took some disciples with him and left others behind, even though he knew it would create an argument about who is most important. And he didn’t even offer a response to the person who held his life in his hands.

He was able to say no because he understood his true purpose and role in this world. It wasn’t to be busy with short term fixes (everyone he healed or raised from the dead eventually died… again) but to build a foundation for a church that would reach the world for thousands of years.

He could say no with confidence because he knew his greater purpose.

Saying ‘no’ brings needed margin to your life.

3. THE FUTURE: Saying no to the present is saying yes to the future. It leaves doors open for future possibilities. Conversely, when you say yes to something, you’re also saying no to future possibilities.

Of course there are good reasons to do this. Saying yes to marrying one woman 20 years ago meant I was saying no to the thousands of other potential spouses (or dozens? Ok maybe less). That was really good! But the woman dating a guy because “no one else is around” has closed the door on Mr. Right who isn’t going to ask you out when you’re ‘taken.’

I’ve heard Tim Ferriss say (repeating someone else), that if your immediate response is not “Heck Yeah!”, then your answer should be ‘no.’ If you don’t think to yourself “Oh man, I HAVE TO DO THIS! I can’t NOT do this!” then your immediate response should be ‘no.’ Now, you might think more about it and come back later and say yes, but if you are regularly saying yes to the “meh” opportunities, then you are closing the door on the future “Oh heck yeah!” opportunities.

I remember being asked to consider working for a guy. The position was one of interest with elements of all the things I was looking to do at the time. We met multiple times for many hours discussing the job. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something wasn’t right. So I kept putting off a decision. Finally I realized that one of the most important elements of the job that I desired was not going to be a priority to him. So even though it was 95% of what I was looking for, I said ‘no.’ And I immediately knew it was the right choice, even though I didn’t know what other doors would open.

A few months later my boss approached me with an opportunity. Within seconds of him outlining it I said yes. There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation. I knew immediately that it ticked off all the boxes. If I had said yes to the first opportunity, this other opportunity never would have come about. Someone else would have been asked – someone available at the time.

PAUSE FOR SANITY

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure 78% of those reading have thought, “oh sure – you make it sound so easy. But hey what about the real world where you can’t always say no – where you don’t have the option.”

Look, of course there are limitations to everything I’ve written.

A boss has expectations that you have to fulfill.

Family members have needs that need to be met.

I get all that. I’m not saying you should say no in every situation. That could make for some short careers and relationships.

However even in what are often thought of as the most restrictive situations you can learn to push back appropriately.

I’ve seen military guys turn seemingly impossible situations to their favor through careful persistence and not accepting ‘no’ from others as the final answer. I’ve seen dead relationships turn around because someone didn’t give up hope or quit.

So take all of this with a grain of salt and think through your specific situation. But you have to start by believing that you are worth it enough to say no. Until you come to believe that you really are worth it – that your time is valuable too, you might be able to eek out a ‘no’ here and there, but I bet you’ll struggle to stick to it when pressed.

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So this is the starting place of learning to say no. If you’ve found the word regularly getting stuck in your throat, or struggle to even repeat the alphabet because n bumps right next to o, then know it’s going to take some time. Learning to say no is a skill and an art just like in any area of life. So start by finding one area where you really need to say no. And start by thinking about why you haven’t been able to say no and how that connects to who you are.

2 thoughts on “How to Say NO

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