Why You Suck At NO

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NO this isn’t a sign!

Why You Suck at NO

I recently took over leadership of a speaking group in Portland, OR. As soon as I took charge, I sat down and created a plan for how the group might proceed. I presented my idea to the group and at first everyone liked it.

Then another member said they thought my plan would take the group in the wrong direction and proposed something radically different. Soon everyone in the group was unsure about how to proceed.

We spent over an hour discussing what our options were and at the end came to an uneasy compromise. At the end of the meeting, I walked out feeling that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t that I thought my idea was better or that I was mad at the other member. The problem was my desire to say NO.

Every instinct in my body told me I needed to quit my leadership role. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself say NO, and so instead, I proceeded to stress out about the meeting for the next several hours.

It took me over a week of thought and many long discussions with mentors to come to the conclusion that I should bow out. But as soon as I made the decision again, I realized that if I had just trusted my instincts in the first place I could have avoided this turmoil.

And I began to wonder why did it take me so long to come to terms with that choice. I realized the reason is I have a hard time saying NO.

The Baby NO

If you’ve ever worked with young children you know that NO is the first word they learn to express their boundaries. In fact, you rarely hear little kids say yes, (unless you ask them if they want candy.) Instead, little kids just engage with what they like.

But when they dislike something instead of engaging they merely say NO and refuse to budge unless skillfully coaxed.

Strangely enough, it is this same avoidant attitude that keeps most of us from saying NO as adults.

Subtle ‘no’

NO is a hard word to hear. And a harder word to say. Especially if we care about the people we are talking to. NO invites confrontation and as adults we usually avoid confrontation.

Sometime we do this out of fear, but mostly it’s out of a desire to maintain social relations. So instead of saying NO outright, we say NO in subtle ways.

We say NO by showing up late or by not doing a good job. We say NO by procrastinating or by offering counter arguments. Sometimes we say NO by simply forgetting what we said yes to.

And while these are all different styles of the subtle NO, they all have one thing in common. They all say NO without saying yes to the responsibility.

The Vulnerable NO

Saying NO without anger is hard because it makes us feel vulnerable. Saying NO demands that we own our own perspective and boundaries. Saying NO means that our self-care matters and that we matter too. And standing up for your self in this way can be scary.

So what are all of us Yes men and women to do?
Simple we just have to learn to say NO. And here are the five criteria I use to help me know when to NO.

The Five Factors of Knowing When to NO

1. Do I really have the Resources?

Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first step is to check and see if I have the time or money to say yes. And in looking back, I realized I often overestimate the time and money I have.

I do this because I want to be optimistic and so I say yes believing I’ll find a way to make it work. But I’ve realized that in saying yes too often I’m really robbing every other aspect of my life.

Every little bit of extra I squeeze out of my day or budget only means that other things suffer. I’m more tired at the end of the day. I don’t have enough money to buy a friend a cup of coffee. And I feel less hopeful about my own life.

So, instead of saying yes right away I check to see if I have the resources. And then I try to check again. I do this because I have found that this second check reveals the truth about where I stand.

2. Did I Plan for Space?

When I’m scheduling meetings, I often imagine myself moving smoothly from one event to the next. But the problem is life isn’t smooth.

Traffic happens, belts get lost, and things take longer than I expected. So, when I plan for perfection I often end up with disaster. But if I plan for space things go more smoothly.

Sometimes that space is filled with a few calm moments between meetings. And sometimes that space is filled up with looking for my bike lights. But in either case, this space makes my life better.

So before I say yes I try to check if I planned for space. If I didn’t plan for space I say NO. Not because I couldn’t squeeze it in, but because I want to live a full life, not a squeezed one.

3. Does It Serve My Vow?

You can do a million wonderful things with your time. And though some people hold strong opinions about what is or isn’t a waste of time. I’ve found that even if you limited your activity to the most laudable tasks. The possibilities are endless.

This means it’s essential to always be asking, “Does this serve my life vow or mission?” Something can be helpful, fun, awesome, and interesting, but if it doesn’t serve what matters the most to you. Then it’s probably not worth your time.

4. Why Am I Doing This?

Often the most important things to say NO to are things we do out of obligation.

Of course some obligations are good and I’m not suggesting your shirk all of your responsibilities, but all to often we are willing to sacrifice our own happiness and our needs out of obligation to others.

So whenever I think about whether I should say yes or NO to something. I ask, “Why am I doing this?”

If the answer relates to serving a deep need in myself or in responding to something vital in community then I’ll seriously consider the proposal.

But if during that examination the word should comes up I start paying attention. The world is filled with books I should read and things I should do, but I’ve found that if I can’t engage with a book or an activity from a real and authentic place. More often than not, I’d be better off just saying NO!

5. What Can I Say Yes To?

Rarely does NO come as a singular entity. Just like the need for atomic particles to balance themselves out. Every NO comes with an equal and opposite yes.

Whenever I encounter something that my gut tells me to say NO to. But I can’t pull the trigger, I ask myself. “If I say NO to this what can I say yes to?” Whenever I do this I often find a sense of clarity and satisfaction I didn’t have before.

I say NO to buying lots of cheap jeans, so I can say yes to having two nice pair of jeans. I say NO to spending lots of time on Facebook, so I can say yes to talking with people face to face. I say NO to distractions, so I can say yes to being present.

The Kindness of NO

Saying NO is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves and those we care about. But only when we do it out of reflection and discernment. If we merely say NO out of fear or avoidance then NO itself can become a problem.

But if you find your life fills up with tasks and you can’t seem to find the room to breathe. It might be time to take a minute to stop and say NO every now and again. The simple act of owning your needs and giving yourself space can help you find peace and balance in your life.


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8 thoughts on “Why You Suck At NO

  1. Hey Toku! I appreciate your sharing and these simple pointers to consider when pondering putting more on one’s plate… check my resources, space, purpose, obligation and trade no for yes. I will remember these!

  2. Oh, I would venture to say, though, that a little child’s no is different than the adult tendency to not say no. I think, as adults we don’t say no because it wasn’t well received when we were kids – and we’ve gathered lots of ideas about what it means to be nice and right.

    1. I couldn’t agree more Amy. I think I was trying to explain how as kids we avoid engagement through direct expression and as adults we avoid engagement through a subtle subversion. But I also agree that the NO’s are in many ways different.

  3. There was a time in my life (in my 30s, I guess) when I was one big walking YES. I was raising two small children, renovating a lovely but ramshackle house, running the usual household gamut of laundry, cleaning, picking up toys, cooking and cleaning up after everyone all the time, hosting big family holiday dinners, all while practicing law during the day and going to grad school 2 nights a week to get my LLm in Taxation – at least, on the nights that I didn’t have various charity board meetings to attend. Oh – and did I mention that I also did step aerobics 3 times a week, alternating with wight training, after I dropped the kids off at school? All of this occurred within the framework of the marriage from hell. I knew that I didn’t love this man, and probably wouldn’t “learn to” as time went on. But he presented me with an engagement ring before I had a clue about it, and, with everything that was authentic in me screaming “NO!!!” – I said Yes. I couldn’t even conceive of how I would deal with the situation if I said no. A couple weeks went by, and I started confiding about my doubts to my best girlfriend, who was furious with me for giving in when she knew so well how I really felt about him. And then, my parents invited him to spend the weekend at our beach cottage in Maine; another situation arose during this weekend when I desperately wanted to say No to his advances, and just gave in, because I was losing my own sense of self by the minute. And guess what – one time, and 5 weeks later I was looking at a positive pregnancy test. That was when “No” disappeared from my vocabulary.

    Not only did I agree to undertake all sorts of commitments and responsibilities, but I lived in fear of not having anticipated an obligation I should have expected – and then the “Yes, of course” was accompanied with a remorseful “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize…..”

    Whereas, while I was in school, my academic honors protected me from disappointing people, when real life started, there were no more prizes to win, no more honors to receive – how was I to know if I was of any worth? And how much worth?

    The end to this particular stage in my life was as bad as could be – I had a complete nervous breakdown, was in a locked psych ward for weeks, lost my status as a full adult with my husband and family, and things just got worse until my mother and sister, fearing for my life, pulled me out of that household. There’s so much more that happened subsequently that I would be exceeding the number of words in your actual post – maybe I have.

    As a barely functioning new widow right now, my whole life consists of “No” – I can’t help one single person right now, including myself – and that’s the first time I have had to confront this. It feels as awful as I thought it would, but at least I haven’t created expectations I can’t meet – that’s a small gift to myself.

    Thanks for this topic – it hit a lot of nerves, obviously.

    1. Maura as always your comments are amazing. Thank you for being willing to share so much of your personal story here. You highlight some amazing examples of the danger of being unwilling to say NO.

      Thank you for saying yes to posting even as you work with this difficult time in your life.

  4. Excellent post. I sure recognised myself here. By saying yes too often I am not only robbing myself but also robbing other people I have said yes to.
    But baby steps, I think. So tomorrow I will practise, ‘not yet’ instead of yes.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I absolutely love this post Toku. When we say yes to others too often, we say no to ourselves, but we all want to be helpful and kind. I liked your points. Will try to remember them. Thumbs up.

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