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The Power of ‘No’
Wielded wisely, ‘NO’ is an instrument of integrity and a shield against
exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting
limits sets us free.
There comes a moment when you say "Don't call me," and you finally mean it, when you turn
down the friend's request for a helping hand, the colleague's plea for immediate advice, even the
teenage son's expectation that dinner will appear before him—all because you have goals of
your own from which you refuse to be deflected. Whether trivial or tormenting, each of these
moments is an exercise in that poorly understood power, namely, the power of ‘No’.
There's a lot to be said, for the power of ‘Yes’. Yes supports risk-taking, courage, and an open-
hearted approach to life whose grace cannot be minimized. But ‘No’—a metal grate that slams
shut the window between one's self and the influence of others—is rarely celebrated. It's a
hidden power because it is both easily misunderstood and difficult to engage.
It's likely that we are unaware of the surge of strength we draw from ‘No’ because, in part, it is
easily confused with negativity. Either can involve a turning away, a shake of the head, or a firm
refusal. But they are distinctly different psychological states.
Negativity is a chronic attitude, a pair of emotional glasses through which some people get a
cloudy view of the world. Negativity expresses itself in a whining perfectionism, a petulant
discontent, or risk-averse nay saying. It's an energy sapper. Negative people may douse the
enthusiasm of others, but rarely inspire them to action. Negativity certainly ensures that you will
not be pleased. You will also not be powerful.
Where negativity is an ongoing attitude, ‘No’ is a moment of clear choice. It announces, however
indirectly, something affirmative about you. "I will not join your committee, help with your kids,
review your project"—because I am committed to some important project of my own. "Count me
out"—because I'm not comfortable, not in agreement, not on the bandwagon. The ‘No’ that is an
affirmation of self implicitly acknowledges personal responsibility. It says that while each of us
interacts with others, and loves, respects, and values those relationships, we do not and cannot
allow ourselves always to be influenced by them. The strength we draw from saying ‘No’ is that it
underscores this hard truth of maturity: The buck stops here.
‘No’ is both the tool and the barrier by which we establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of
the self. ‘No’ says, "This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is
how I will choose to act." We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please
others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need ‘No’ to carve
and support that space.
‘No’ recognizes that we are the agents of our own limits. For most of us, this self-in-charge-and-
wholly-responsible is a powerful, lonely, and very adult awareness. We approach it two steps
forward and one giant retreat—giving in to the beloved, to the bully, to our own urges for another
drink or an unnecessary purchase. The closer we get to manning the barricade of self-set limits,
the stronger we are. That strength requires the power of ‘No’.
‘No’ has two faces: the one we turn toward ourselves and the one that creates boundaries
between ourselves and others. The struggle to strengthen our internal ‘No’, the one we address
to our own self-destructive impulses, is the struggle with which we are most familiar. That
‘No’ controls our vent of rage on the road and our urge for the cigarette. We call that ‘No’ "self-
The ‘No’ we direct toward ourselves comes from an internal self-governor whose job is to contain
our urges and manage our priorities within an iron fist of reason. All our lives we may work on
refining that self-governor, tweaking it, building it, shoring it up. The huge rewards of our
governor's developing ability to say ‘No’—not too rigidly, but often enough and wisely, too
are productivity and peace of mind. The power of ‘No’ is in that payoff.
The ‘No’ we are able to say to others also evolves through life, beginning with the
primitive ‘No’s’ of our childhood. Anyone who has ever tried to put a 2-year-old into a car seat
has real-life evidence. As the 2-year-old begins to differentiate himself—his will, his wishes—
from those of Mum, he hurls one loud, endless cry: ‘NO’. That primordial, powerful ‘No’ is the
original assertion of the self against the other. For the rest of our days we are challenged to find
the proper, effective way to draw that line.
How much ‘No’ is too much? Who turns down a needy friend? Where is the line between self
actualized and selfish? Who refuses to lend support to the modest effort of a group of friends?
What is the boundary between important principles and stubborn oppositionalism?
As a general guideline, five situations benefit from increasing strength to say ‘No’.
1. When it keeps you true to your principles and values. It's a wonderful thing—emotionally,
spiritually, and professionally—to be generous and supportive. But, as sociologists Roger Mayer,
James Davis, and F. David Schoorman point out in their classic studies of organizations, integrity
is as essential as benevolence in establishing interpersonal trust. It is a requirement for
Jack, for example, has always cherished his role as the go-to guy for his friends. "Jack has your
back" has been his proud mantra since school. So when a close, married friend began an affair,
Jack maintained a discreet silence. However, when that close friend asked Jack for the loan of
his holiday home as a convenient site for the clandestine relationship, Jack wrestled with
his conscience. He wanted to continue to be seen as a great guy, but he found himself
uncomfortable being part of a deception, however second-hand. In the end, he said just that, as
he turned his friend down.
Jack's ‘No’ dinged the friendship a bit and violated an unspoken male code, at least among
Jack's peers. Still, if being liked by others is often a by-product of saying ‘Yes’, liking yourself
sometimes comes only from saying ‘No’.
2. When it protects you from cheerful exploitation by others. It's remarkable how much some
people will ask of you, even demand from you, things for which you yourself wouldn't dream of
asking. Protect yourself best from the many who feel entitled to ask by being strong enough to
say a firm, clear, calm ‘No’.
Take a classic school or office scenario: A happy, popular, slacker asks again to borrow his
worker /classmate's careful notes. The worker resents being used, but can't think of a good
reason to refuse. So he acquiesces, get’s asked again and resent’s more. He can't think of a
good reason to say ‘No’ so he gives in. And so the cycle continues.
Finally, paying attention to his own feeling of being taken advantage of—instead of focusing on
finding a reason acceptable to the cheerful exploiter the worker turns Mr. Popular down. Scraping
up his backbone, the worker simply says, "No, I'm not comfortable with that." His ‘No’ earns him
a chilly reception for a week or two. It isn't a pleasant time, but it passes. In its wake, the worker
will find a new safety. ‘No’ is a necessary life shield against the charming users who sniff out
softies. It turns out nice people can say ‘No’.
3. When it keeps you focused on your own goals.
4. When it protects you from abuse by others. Sadly, our most important relationships often
invite our ugliest communications. In part that's because the people closest to us arouse our
strongest emotions, and in part it's because they are the people we fear losing the most. Fear
can sap the strength we need to say ‘No’, just when we need that power most. Stripped of the
power of ‘No’, we leave ourselves vulnerable.
5. When you need the strength to change course. The invitations are in the mail, but the
impending occasion is a mistake. The job looks good to the rest of the world, but its making you
feel ill in the morning. Your family are willing to pay the tuition and support you, but law school
feels like a poor fit. When you find yourself going down the wrong road, ‘No’ is the power
necessary to turn yourself around.
The obstacles to this potent ‘No’ are twofold: First, of course, you have to be able to tolerate
acknowledging, if only to yourself, that you made a mistake. So many of us would rather be right,
than happy. We will continue blindly down the wrong path because we simply can't bring
ourselves to read the road signs. Most of the time however, we know when we need to draw the
line. The problem is getting ourselves to do it. Accessing your own power requires overcoming
one huge obstacle: the cost of dishing out ‘No’.
Simply, ‘No’ is not a warm send. It's tough to deliver, in large part because we have a gut sense
of how it will be received—not well.
Neuroscience supports our hunch that ‘No’ is going to register far more harshly than we may
have intended. The human brain is hardwired to respond to ‘No’ more quickly, more intensely,
and more persistently than to a positive signal. ‘No’ is stronger than ‘Yes’.
The brain's so-called negativity bias, first described by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, explains
why negative experiences have a more enduring impact on emotion than positive events of equal
intensity. The brain reacts pleasantly to positive stimuli but wildly painfully to negative
stimuli. No matter how you gift wrap it, ‘No’ is a negative event. This holds true whether we are
discussing financial matters (we are far more upset by losing a chunk of money than we are
pleased by gaining an equal amount), interpersonal events (negative first impressions are difficult
to overcome), or personal information (negative job feedback has a much more profound effect
than positive information).
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Chicago actually measured the
electrical output of the cerebral cortex to demonstrate that, across a variety of situations,
negative information leads to a swift and outsize surge in activity. One hurt lingers longer than
one compliment. Nevertheless, the ability to rapidly detect bad news and weight it so heavily,
Cacioppo says, evolved for a very positive reason—to keep us out of harm's way.
‘No’ hurts. Whether reasonably required or firmly asserted, the receiver hears ‘No’ and feels
bad. Perhaps we intuitively grasp this brain bias, this neurological oversensitivity to ‘No’ and for
this reason alone are very reluctant to trigger that powerful reaction in others. Too, whether we
sense the brain's negativity bias, many of us hesitate to deliver a ‘No’ because of the real
interpersonal damage it may do. No is not generally a way to win friends.
While we are not all equally vulnerable, some of us find the sting of displeasing others absolutely
intolerable. We refer to these people as "pleasers," and you probably know the degree to which
you yourself are one. Pleasers are so relationship-oriented that they will automatically say what
someone else wants to hear, agree with someone else's ideas, or bow to another's agenda
without hesitation. A pleaser is frequently socially perceived as "nice," is usually well liked, and
often feels taken advantage of, underappreciated, and uncertain in their decision making. When
you cannot say ‘No’ to others, you disappear.
There is a cost to ‘No’ that causes many of us to pull back: ‘No’ can lead to conflict, a path few of
us wish to take if it can be avoided.
You may hesitate to say ‘No’ because the challenge you anticipate from others has merit. The
line between selfish and necessary self-interest is not always clear. You want to turn down an
invitation because you don't like parties. Your friend really wants your support. She will
vigorously object, and you envision her making some good points. That makes ‘No’ tough.
Some people will fight your ‘No’ regardless of the issue. Such individuals take other peoples
boundaries as a personal affront. They challenge you and press you to justify yourself. It is a
character style, and a successful one in many circumstances. ("Don't take ‘No’ for an answer" is
probably the best sales technique of all.) Set up a fence and this parent, spouse, colleague, or
friend sees a barrier erected for the sole purpose of testing his ability to knock it down. Your ‘No’
is his/her call to arms. Most of us hesitate before we go into battle. It's easy to decide it's just not
worth it. It may be tough to dish out a ‘No ‘because you can see the hurt it inflicts. Reflected pain,
a wounded look, tears and a slumped disappointment is difficult to bear. That's a ‘No ‘we want to
avoid but sometimes when we shouldn't.
If you are naturally open-hearted and generous ‘No’ can be very difficult to say. If you are one of
those who really longs to be liked, it's a cringe. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable but also necessary,
because the ‘Yes’ to always putting other people’s needs before your own carves continuous
slices from you, while ‘No’ (difficult as it can be), in the long run is a rock and shield. Therein lie’s
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, author of ‘Give and Take’ and Professor at the
University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges the many professional rewards and successes that
accrue to generous givers. However, Grant emphasizes that "the ability to say ‘No’ is one of the
most important skills one can have, particularly for givers." He points to the power of ‘No’ as
necessary to carve time for one's own goals and agenda. Without it, other people dictate your
schedule and limit your accomplishments "Saying ‘No’ is especially huge in establishing a
work/life balance. Without that ability, work will cannibalize your life."
‘No’ also makes other people respect you and your time more, Grant notes. "When you are able
to say ‘No’, people are careful to come to you with only meaningful requests, rather than simply
asking for any help you might be able to give."
‘No’ makes your ‘Yes’ more meaningful, or as Grant puts it, "It makes you more of a specialist,
rather than a generalist in what you give to others." When we say ‘Yes’ thoughtfully, because we
are giving in our area of expertise, rather than saying ‘Yes’ out of a need to be liked, we are far
more apt to feel satisfied by giving.
‘No’ pays off in the personal arena as well as the professional one. It's empowering to feel in
charge of one's self, to be the boundary setter and the decider. There's a bonus in energy and
‘No’ tests the health and equity of your closest relationships. If you feel you cannot say ‘No’, at
least to some things, some of the time, then you are not being loved—you are being controlled!
Finally, and perhaps most important, personal integrity requires the power of ‘No’. The ability to
say ‘No’ is an essential element of our moral compass. Without it, we are merely agreeable
pleasers, the Pillsbury doughboys of morals and values. Whatever the cost or quake involved
when you deliver a ‘No’, backbone is defined by your ability to say it.
Learning to say ‘No’ is difficult but several strategies can help us achieve that balance.
Replace your automatic Yes with "I'll think about it."
If you haven't used this technique much, you will be surprised by the results. "I'll think about it"
puts you in control, softens the ground for ‘No’, suggests you are actually weighing important
factors, and, most important, allows you the opportunity to think things through. A ‘No’ that
follows thoughtful decision making is more grounded than a ‘No’ fuelled by emotional impulse.
Soften your language.
Try "I'm not comfortable with that." "I'd prefer not." "I'd rather..." "Let's agree to disagree here." Or
"That's a good/nice/interesting plan, but I won't be able to..." Make no mistake. You are still
delivering a clear and powerful ‘No’, and the other person well understands that. This ‘No’,
sweeter and softer, may go down better.
Contain your feelings.
‘No’ is best deployed pleasantly with an air of Zen calm. (Tricky, because you are most likely not
feeling it) Outward calm helps quiet your inner turmoil. What's more, it will reduce the negative
impact of your ‘No’ on the brain of your audience. The jolt that ‘No’ delivers is big enough without
a tsunami of anger and invective.
Refer to your commitment to others.
Say ‘No’ without appearing selfish or uncaring by referencing your conflicting obligations to other
people. "I'd love to help, but I have already agreed to help.............., and I can't let him/her down."
You may design one clear, respectful excuse and keep repeating it no matter what comes your
way or practice calmly cutting the conversation short. However, if you practice long enough, you
might just become strong enough to listen to any inappropriate, uncomfortable, excessive
request, pause for breath, and then deliver your one word, no-explanation verdict: ‘No’.
Reference: Psychology Today (The power of No) (Judith Sills, Ph.D)
RGN, BSc (Hon’s) Nursing Science, PGCC, Dip Counselling, Dip Advanced Psychotherapy,
BSc (Hon’s) Clinical Science, PGCE (QTS), H. Dip. Ed, MEd,
MHS (Level 9) Emotional Intelligence (Assessor)
PhD student Health Psychology