One of the challenges of learning to say ‘no’ is knowing how to stand your ground afterword. Sometimes uttering the word is the easy part, but standing firm on the decision might be the greater battle.
Usually in any given situation you have options on how to respond. You could take a strong stand, a mild stand, or ignore it completely, or some shade of the above.
The Apostle Paul, when facing persecution, took different approaches in different cities. Sometimes he ran for the hills, even escaping in a basket over the city wall (why a basket? why not just climb down the rope?). Other times he stayed around long enough to be beat like a piñata on Cinco de Mayo. And then came back again for another beat down. Apparently he liked piñatas.
How do you know which is right? What if you were supposed to take a beating and you fled? (you coward you). Or you took a beating when it was ok to run? (oops. Practice up on filing with insurance).
Let’s look at the three main options – both what they are and how to do it.
The Strong Stand.
The Mild Stand
We’ll start in reverse order with the easiest.
One day a directive was issued at our office. Each person would make five calls for an upcoming campaign. We needed “all hands on deck” to address this “emergency situation.” The directive came from on high, but was being delivered by a middle manager. When the email hit my inbox I was furious. How dare they force me to be a part of this. I didn’t agree with it at all. I thought it was ill conceived, reactionary, and a band-aid approach to a more systemic issue. I went to my immediate boss and said, “no way they’re making me do this – who do I need to go talk with to make my position clear.” I was ready for a fight.
He sat silent for a while, fiddling with a pencil in his hands, patiently pondering how to respond. Finally he said, “I think you’d be best off just to ignore it. They’re probably not going to come track you down for five phone calls. And it’s probably not worth the energy to go stir up a fight. Unless you feel it’s really worth taking a stand over. If so, I’ll direct you to the right person.” Wiser words have rarely been spoken. His final sentence was something along these lines “There are so many things in life you can give energy to. Sometimes you have to take a step back and consider whether or not it’s worth it.”
If everything is a big deal worth dying over, then likely nothing is either. If everything in your life rises to DEFCON10 in the blink of an eye, that’s no way to live. You’ll have no emotional margin and become like the boy crying wolf.
Alan Scholes in his book Enjoying God offers a very helpful perspective. He’s specifically addressing the issue of how to know which doctrines of Christian theology are most important, but his categories are helpful for other arenas as well.
He says there are three main levels of belief: Opinions, persuasion, and convictions.
Opinions are matters you could give or take; you hold them, but not strongly. Persuasions are items you find important to you, and you value them strongly, but not so much that you would lose your job or house over. Convictions are beliefs that are absolutely central to your life – so much so that you would even die over them.
(summarized from True Identity p.43)
There should be far fewer convictions than persuasions in your life, while opinions should be the broadest category. So whenever you’re thinking of taking a stand, start by asking yourself where the issue falls. Is it a conviction level issue, or does it tumble down a step or two?
I took my boss’s advice, ignored the directive, and nothing else happened. I moved on and reserved my emotional energy for much more important things.
So I ignored a broad directive across the entire organization and my immediate boss was supportive of the decision. But what if it’s a little trickier? What if your immediate boss gives you a directive you don’t agree with? I’m not talking about something that’s immoral or illegal – but something you think doesn’t need to be done for various reasons – maybe it’s a waste of time or money or not ‘on message’ for the organization.
There are three main options you can take at this point:
- Wait and See. (Patience)
- Pan it off on someone else. Or
Let’s look at these three options within the “ignore it” approach to taking a stand.
WAIT AND SEE (“Patience”)
Years ago I had a boss who would have a weekly meeting where he off-loaded a ton of tasks on me. They came one after another like a machine gun on full auto. It was way too much to get done immediately. He knew that and I knew that. That’s why when I started the job he heavily emphasized Stephen Covey’s rubric four quadrant of important/not important – urgent/non-urgent so that I could quickly learn to categorize and prioritize tasks.
But that was just the first layer of categorization. There was another layer as well that was more subtle and took me a few weeks to realize. On any given week in that long list of say 30 tasks there were usually one or two that he wanted in that moment, but might not want later on.
With those tasks, I didn’t say “I’m not going to do these”, rather I learned to put them at the very bottom of the list and develop more of a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Let’s just wait and see if he really wants this done or not. This was a strategic decision that I learned to make with confidence because of the hope that it would best serve him. It wasn’t about me “getting out work” but about using my time wisely for his benefit. I didn’t want to waste time, and I knew it wouldn’t serve him well to waste time on something that he would later decide he didn’t need. I mean, who hasn’t done that before? We’re all guilty of thinking something is really important in the moment, only to realize just a day later that you didn’t need it at all. No one is immune from that completely.
It was a bit of an art to guess at this. Sometimes I would even ask “what level of priority is this for you right now?” if it wasn’t immediately obvious. I learned that with these “wait and see” items that if he brought it back up again, then I knew that it really was a priority.
Now, there is a risk here. If the boss is always having to ask for things multiple times, then over time that erodes trust and confidence in your competence. Your boss may begin to think you’re not listening or being intentionally insubordinate. At best it becomes annoying. At worst she loses confidence in your ability. So I was cautious and judicious with this.
Pan it Off
Sometimes you can delegate a task to someone else. I’m always shocked when I learn of people who stinking LOVE to do accounting type tasks, or sorting data, or who knows what. It’s hard to believe, but there really are people who love to do the thing you hate – oh, and by the way, they are probably much better at it. Sometimes your boss wants you to specifically handle a task and not pass it off, but there are many times both you and your boss know it’s best to delegate to someone better suited to kill it. So with those items you find less interesting, see if there’s someone else who can handle it – even if you have to trade them some work. You both gain from that.
There’s a story of Major Dick Winters, famously featured in the book Band of Brothers, where his commanding officer directed him to take his company out for an evening reconnaissance patrol. They had done the exact same recon the previous night with no benefit and heavy casualties. This made no sense to Winters. The war was winding down; why so much risk for so little gain? But he said, “yes sir” and geared his crew up for the task. When it came time to execute, they headed out toward the objective, but stopped short of crossing into enemy territory, and found an empty building to sit in for the night. When it was about time to be back, they returned to the base, where the commanding officer asked what they found. “Nothing sir.”
In this situation he simply pretended to carry out the task. He protected his men and satisfied his commanding officer. (HT: Jocko Podcast)
Now of course this is risky. In fact, of the above three options, it’s the one you should take the least. As far as I know, this was the only time Winters took this approach. Imagine what his men would think if he was often hiding in a building – it really could have hurt the war effort, and it would have eroded their trust and confidence in his leadership. And he was risking getting found out by his boss. But I suspect that if he was called out on it, he would have taken a stand for his men and explained himself with full confidence.
With the boss I mentioned earlier, there was really only one time I can think of where I said “yes sir” and then turned around and pretended to complete the task. That was out of two and a half years of working in that job. And if I my boss would have found out about it and called me on it, I firmly believe I had enough equity with him, and, given time to explain my reasoning, I would have weathered it just fine. In fact he may have even appreciated it. He had given me the directive in the heat of the moment and I was to pass it on to someone else that I knew was swamped and would not receive it well. I was focused on protecting his reputation and I think he would have seen that and appreciated that.
Me ‘ignoring’ his command was not about me getting out of work – it was about keeping his best interest in mind. Dick Winters wasn’t trying to save his own bacon or stick it to his commanding officer – he was trying to protect his men and get them home and avoid a no-win situation.
There’s another factor involved though. I had already earned much equity, respect and trust from years of hard work. That was in my favor as well.
I saw another situation where a man started a job and early on made a mistake of aggression where he was looking to be proactive in his job, but it went the wrong way. Since he was new to the job, he had no equity to fall back on; they hadn’t yet built up a relationship of trust. It ended up eventually leading to him having to move on to another job.
If you find yourself constantly thinking the directives from your boss are bad ideas, and feeling like you need to ignore them all, then there’s likely another reality you need to seriously consider. That may mean you need to find somewhere else to work.
Ok, so that sums up how we take the “easiest” route for taking a stand – just ignoring an issue. Now, how do we take a “mild stand.”
THE MILD STAND
This is a tough one because it’s the middle of the road option. Which makes it the blandest. And thus the least interesting. However, it’s also important to master since it’s where the bulk of life is lived.
Most of life is in the “I have an opinion on this, but not a strong one” zone. With most situations you’re probably somewhere between opinion and persuasion. Some opinions you feel very strongly about, but you’re not going to go nuclear over them. I might deeply believe that the best writing instrument is a fountain pen: superior to a Bic, crayon, or keyboard (though I am typing this… hmmm). However I can’t think of an instance where I would want to have deep conflict or even mild conflict on this topic. If (or when) the government comes to take my fountain pens, I’ll be sad, but I won’t die on that hill.
We’re all bumping up against the opinions/persuasions of others all day long, so how do we know when something should rise to the surface? When should it be treated more like a conviction?
Time is Your Friend
I think one of the best measures of this is time. If you find yourself calling something a “little thing that shouldn’t bother me” and yet it continues to come to mind and you can’t get it out of your head – that’s a sign that you need to deal with it somehow.
Every healthy and successful relationship requires the ability to overlook many things. I’ve found myself being overly critical of every single thing about another person – wanting to correct almost every sentence they uttered. Ok – that’s a sign that I might be the one with the issue, not them. Time helps you sort this out and gain a healthy perspective.
But yet overlooking everything isn’t healthy either. We’re put in relationships for a reason. Proverbs says, “Like iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Sharpening a knife requires rubbing it against something so that steel is ground away and removed. That’s not a clean, easy process. It requires force and friction and makes a mess. Yet if you want a sharp knife, you have to do it. Otherwise you go through life with a dull knife that keeps getting duller. Eventually that knife is, as Foghorn Leghorn reminds us, “about as sharp as a bowling ball.”
I’ve seen this happen with guys who consistently reject the input of their spouse. His wife has to walk on egg shells around him knowing if he’s ever criticized even in the slightest, most gentle, most kindly fashion, he erupts into Mt. St. Husband – taking it personally and being deeply offended. Yet if your spouse, your wife, the one you loved enough to ask to marry you, can’t give you feedback – if you can’t learn to receive this from her with a slightly open mind, then you’re closing off one of the best possible feedback loops in your life. You are stunting your growth and development as a human.
And if not your wife – the one who loves you – then who else is going to do it? If your friends see you reacting to her that way – and they will – then they’re not going to go there either. So if your friends won’t point out the booger on your face, who does that leave? Your enemies.
Of course I hear you wives – I know what you’re thinking, “oh yeah my man needs to read this!” But wait a second. Maybe he stopped listening because you are nagging about every little thing. I’ve seen some wives go mother-hen on their husbands. Treating them like a five year old. Men definitely don’t want that. So this is where we get to work together. The wife gives feedback and the husband responds. And vice versa.
Not all Jokes are Funny
I remember Julie responding to a joke I told in front of a crowd. I had implied that one of my co-workers, whom I had deep respect for as a man of high character, that he regularly swears in my presence. At work. At a Christian ministry.
I thought it was hilarious. He thought it was funny. One of our friends with a great sense of humor thought it was the funniest thing ever. Julie said, “It wasn’t funny.”
I said, “What do you mean? It was hilarious.”
She again said, “It wasn’t funny.”
I said, “Come on. Do you even have a sense of humor?”
She sat quiet for a moment, gathered her thoughts, then very patiently and calmly said, “Maybe some people laughed, but it was in poor taste. How many people who don’t know him will wonder if he really does tend to swear in private?”
Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I sat quiet because I didn’t know what else to say. Had to think more about that one. I came back around later to tell her thanks and say she was right. I also went to my friend and apologized and asked if he thought I should apologize to the whole group. He said no – to let it go (that would probably stir up more than needed – most people probably didn’t notice and just moved on).
Thankfully, my wife did this in a very loving way and in a way I could process and eventually accept. She didn’t call me an idiot. She didn’t say I had no sense of humor (even though that was my accusation of her). She didn’t question my motives or my existence as a person. She merely said that the joke was in poor taste. Very helpful feedback. I want to be a person that uses humor to build people up, not tear them down.
But I didn’t always react this positively. Early on I would shut Julie down by counter-arguing her feedback. She doesn’t like conflict, but I do. So when she brought a suggestion, in my mind it was time to debate – what fun! But that just shut her down, and eventually, she stopped saying anything. Why waste the emotional energy just to watch it turn into an argument. And who wants to be married to an unteachable person that consistently embarrasses you in front of others? No fun.
Thankfully she was able to find the courage to talk to me about this whole dynamic and we began to make changes.
Now, husband, you may have to give your spouse feedback on how the correction was delivered. You might say to her, “You know, when you told me I was wrong, It felt like you made a bigger deal out of it than was necessary.” Or, “I think I would have received it better if we had been in private. I felt disrespected in the moment.” (In her defense, she might have had to address it in the moment – a public offense often needs a public correction.)
Here’s how you could put it all together to know how to bring up an opinion or persuasion that won’t go away. Look for an opportunity to address the issue when you have their full attention. Make sure you are able to make eye contact. Give them a heads up that this is important. Try some version of this script:
“Hey, there’s this thing that’s been bothering me. At first I thought it was just a little thing and I should just let it go. And by itself, it is kind of is a little thing, so I feel kind of silly bringing it up. But it just won’t go away, so instead of letting it turn to bitterness, I thought I’d bring it up to discuss it.” Then be sure to be specific, and be gracious.
That’s a glimpse of how this might work in marriage. But you can apply this in any relationship. Really. Let’s also talk about an office setting.
Taking a mild stand at work.
Now what about in the office? How do you take a mild stand? One way is to word it in a way that gives people an out. You say, “I’m not in full agreement with that. I’d take a different approach.” And be sure to share your view. And make it a positive solution. A criticism is usually better delivered when a positive option is in tow. That isn’t always necessary, but it helps the other party see why you don’t agree. It also presents an opportunity to teach others your perspective in life. This becomes an opportunity to teach and train
TEACH AND TRAIN
The person overseeing our call center once forwarded me a customer complaint. He also included his own note along the lines of, “See – this is why we need to change the product.” As one of the creators of this product, my immediate response was to get defensive. “What in the world do you know about product design? Who are you Mr. Call Center Guy to tell me what to do?” Thankfully, I didn’t express any of those thoughts (till now). Instead, I thought, “Let me try to explain why we designed it that way.” I typed out the most thoughtful and gracious explanation of the “why” behind the product that I could and sent it along. His response was better than I could have imagined: “I see now. This makes sense. I copied your response into our training materials for our customer service reps.” A light came on for me in that moment. What I took as a personal attack was an opportunity to teach and train. It was also a reminder that I had failed to communicate these things before now – so I couldn’t blame him.
Of course there are plenty of times you explain away to no avail. You explain the same thing a hundred times and still no one seems to hear. If it’s your boss, then that means he doesn’t agree and you need to move on. You’ve made your case, he’s heard it, now it’s time to move on. Don’t harbor bitterness. If you keep nagging him, he won’t listen when you really want him to. If it is a co-worker and they won’t listen, pause and ask yourself why and then ask them why. “Guys, I’ve shared this idea and my view a bunch of times already and no one seems to be on board. Do you mind if I ask why? How could I improve this?” Ask them to give input. There’s a chance they might really improve the idea and make it better. Or they may just be hearing it for the first time. Because you’ve said it a hundred times doesn’t mean anyone has heard it.
Thus you might just need to persevere in your communication. I’ve heard Dennis Rainey, the founder of FamilyLife, say, “Just about the time you are absolutely sick of talking about something, when you feel like you can’t ever mention it again, when the mere mention of the idea gives you a gag reflex, that’s when people are just starting to hear it for the first time.” Ugh. Really? Yes, really. You’ve been thinking about it a long time. They haven’t. They have their own things to worry about, their own ideas to promote. So do a stop and ask more directly. And persevere with the idea. It may take a while until people are ready to hear it. Who knows why they haven’t listened, but that doesn’t always mean it’s a bad idea.
So in summary, taking a “mild stand” requires listening for patterns, asking for feedback, seeking to teach and train others while also being teachable about your viewpoint and persevering in your communication. The great part about the “mild stand” arena is it’s a great place to grow personally because as you engage with others on your opinions, they grow and shift and move. And in the best case scenario, your idea and their idea becomes our idea and helps everyone improve. This is the positive side of conflict (yes my golden retriever personality friend, there really can be a positive side): two parties have an opportunity to take their differing values and develop a shared set of values.
TAKING A FIRM STAND
All right. Here we finally are. The Firm Stand. Sometimes you have no choice. You have to take a firm stand and say, “I’m not ok with this and I can’t be involved” and live with the consequences. This is connected with the “convictions” you hold – those beliefs that are at the very core of you who are – the things that define and shape your identity and the way you live.
But as you can imagine, there are many ways you can go about this as well. But first you have to realize that it is important. Even if you don’t know the full outcome, it is worth it. Because just as there is a cost to taking a stand, there is a cost to not taking a stand. And you have to come to a place of knowing that the cost of not taking a stand is greater than the potential pain of taking a stand.
There is a cost to inaction.
Someone once said to Winston Churchill, known for his unrelenting efforts to prepare Great Britain for war, that “nothing is worse than war.” He replied, “Slavery is worse than war. Dishonor is worse than war.” Yes, as awful as war is, there are things that are worse. We are fortunate Lincoln realized this as well. Some have even proposed that the Prime Minister that preceded Churchill likely contributed heavily to the escalation of WWII because of his policy of appeasement toward Hitler. How different would things have been if he had taken a firm stand with Hitler instead of “appeasing” him with Czechoslovakia? Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
President Harry S. Truman was known for being willing to take a firm stand, even keeping a nameplate on his desk that said, “The buck stops here,” meaning he was willing to make hard decisions and own the consequences whatever they may be. One of his more difficult and controversial decisions was firing General MacArthur at the height of his popularity. Truman knew he would be accused of doing it for political reasons (many thought MacArthur was poised to run for president). But MacArthur had become a hothead (wanted to drop 30 atomic bombs on Korea) and insubordinate (ignoring direct commands from Truman), so Truman relieved MacArthur.
Reagan walked out of a meeting with Gorbachev when the Russian leader ignored Reagan’s hard line that “the Star Wars program is a non-negotiable.” When Gorbachev brought it up, he stood up and walked out into his waiting limo. Gorbachev followed him the whole way, trying to restart the conversation, but Reagan kept moving and held his ground.
DO HARD THINGS
Leaders are people who are willing to do hard things, no matter the cost. They are willing to do the right thing when others won’t. They are the people others look to for courage when things get hard. I often pray for my children that others would look to them and know they are going to do the hard thing, even when it isn’t popular or easy.
If you’re contemplating taking a hard stand on an issue, that means you’ve been put in this position for a reason. You are in a position to make a difference. As hard as it is, others will benefit from your decision. In fact, it is important to keep this in mind: it’s not just about you. Making a hard decision will also be of benefit to others. It really will. Of course you’re likely not holding the fate of Europe in your hands but it might be the World War Twos with your toddler. Appeasement didn’t work with Hitler nor will it with toddlers. Not that you need to become a dictator over a dictator, but a toddler who doesn’t learn to gracefully accept the word ‘no’ is going to have a hard life.
A friend of mine understood this well. He said he always tried to allow their kids to appeal some decisions. He wanted them to feel they had a voice. Yet also, there were seasons when a kid (I’m talking about young kids here, like ages 5-9) would question his directives at every turn – basically trying to take over authority. When the situation descended to this, the dad would have this kind of conversation with them: “Stalin (not his real name), I’m glad you have your own view and have your own questions about life. But I’m sensing we’re at a place where you’re pushing back too much mainly because you don’t want to accept any of my answers. As a result, I’m going to take away the privilege of the appeal for a season, till I feel we are in a place where you trust my decisions again.” And so for a time he would only accept obedience to the directive. He wouldn’t debate, he wouldn’t answer why, and he wouldn’t allow questions until the ship was righted again. He didn’t do it harshly or meanly – it wasn’t about punishment – it was about rebuilding trust.
Your child needs to trust that you have their best interest in mind, even if they don’t agree, and even if you’re wrong at times (and you will be). But if they appeal everything, that’s not good. Imagine if you disagreed with your boss at work at every turn. Wouldn’t be long before she told you to shut up or find another job.
The beauty of this is that it requires a connection with your kids. You have to be connecting with them at a heart level.
STANDING IN THE SMALL MOMENTS
Taking a Firm Stand could be in big situations, but it could also occur in seemingly small situations. But it is still important.
I was once asked to serve on a “leadership council” at church. I was representing the college age group, since I was teaching their Sunday morning Bible study class at the time. I loved my church so it felt like a great honor to me. The church was in a bit of a crisis mode though. Over the course of a year it had dropped from about 2,000 regular weekly attenders down to about 300. I was excited to be helping out however I could. I didn’t realize it at first, but the “leadership council” was the brainchild of one lady heading up the group. And she had formed the group on her own as an effort to co-opt leadership of the church. We were without a pastor, and the church structure was such that there was no clearly designated leader in that scenario. But as a 19-year old, I was oblivious to all the political stuff. Until it became obvious.
During one meeting of the Leadership Council, the chairman, this lady who formed the group, asked everyone to vote on a move to ignore part of the church by-laws (the church ‘constitution’ or governing document). I don’t even remember what the issue was, but this didn’t feel right. Partly because my Dad helped write the by-laws, and just like with the US Constitution, I knew there was a process in place to change the by-laws. So before anyone could vote I pointed this out: “I don’t think we should be voting on this or attempting to bypass the by-laws. If they need to be changed, then let’s go through the process.” She back-peddled at this and we didn’t vote. The group moved on to another topic.
Here’s what amazed me. Afterwards a 40-year old lady in the group that I really respected and admired came up to me and said, “I’m glad you said something. I was feeling the same way but wasn’t sure I should say anything.” I was floored. You mean someone older than me might not feel comfortable taking a stand? You mean a 19 year old can influence adults?” That was huge. Yes a young person can have an influence on those older by taking a stand. I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done. It’s like 1st Timothy 4:12 says, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. But set an example for the believer. In speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” Set an example and it will inspire others around you.
The Leadership Council broke up not longer after that. And the church is growing and healthy again today. I think I can pretty much take credit for that… maybe?
Of course it doesn’t always work out this beautifully. I’ve had other situations where I took a firm stand and it resulted in needing to move on to another role or boss or company. But looking back, it was still the right thing to do. And that’s what matters.
FOUR FACTORS IN MORAL DECISIONS
Theologian Wayne Grudem in his book on Ethics talks about decisions being right or wrong based on four main factors:
- The action itself.
- The person’s attitudes about the action.
- The person’s motives for doing the action.
- The results of the action.
This has been helpful for me. Sometimes a decision is right because the action is inherently right. Sometimes the action is inherently wrong. Sometimes it is the attitude (or belief) that is right or wrong. Sometimes the motive determines the morality of a decision (think of how ‘murder’ has various ‘degrees’ or categories based on the motive). And then sometimes a decision is right because of the outcome. The end might justify the means. Yet sometimes, the decision is wrong no matter how good the outcome might seem.
Often moral decisions involve some combination of all of the above categories. I suspect taking a stand falls into this same category of being multi-faceted.
Do the Opposite
One last thing. Sometimes you can take a stand by doing the opposite of what you want. Teddy Roosevelt, when he was the police commissioner of New York City, was famous for enforcing laws that he personally thought were flawed and outdated. Some of his predecessors had just ignored these laws and overlooked infractions. But he enforced them with the maximum possible effort, causing an uproar among the populace, and leading to a change in the laws. I’ve heard the military maxim, “Sometimes the best way to prove that an order is stupid is to execute it.” Of course this is a delicate balance that can backfire, but it is another tool in your belt for saying ‘no’ in a given situation. Tuck it there and be ready to use it!
OK – be ready to take a stand – to stand firm – after saying NO. You can take a hard stand – or sometimes it’s a mild stand. Sometimes you just ignore it. Whatever approach you take, come back to the reality that you are worth it. And so are your loved ones. You can take a stand because it is best in the long run for you and the other people in your life you care most about.