Article, after article (after article, after book) has been published about the word “no.” Why you should say it. How to say it. How to avoid the guilt after you say it. I’ve read them all. Well, okay not all. No one has time for that. But, no matter how many experts tell me it’s okay and even healthy to say “no,” I still struggle with it.
I think everyone has a different relationship with “no.” Yes, women probably struggle with it more than men, but there’s a number of other factors that can shape how we view this two-letter word. How we’re raised. Who we surround ourselves with. How many years we’ve been in therapy.
Part of my ongoing struggle with “no” ties back to a quintessential Catholic upbringing complete with an off-the-charts sense of guilt. Feeling the pressure to be accommodating as a woman. Not wanting to disappoint friends, family, my Uber driver, pretty much anyone I encounter. Fear of failure. Self-confidence issues. The whole kit and caboodle.
It’s not just saying “no” that’s difficult for me. Hearing it and knowing when not to take it for an answer are also a struggle. My journey with this two-letter ball of disappointment is far from over, but I’ve learned a few things that keep its soul-crushing impact at bay.
The older I get the harder it’s become for me to say “no.” Part of that is an underlying competitive nature that whispers “if you say ‘no’ someone else will say ‘yes’ and that means you lose. There’s this sense that saying “no” to one opportunity means there will be no others. But saying “yes” when you can’t do the job well because you’re stretched too thin is more of an opportunity-killer than declining to take on a project when you’re overbooked.
The best piece of advice I ever got was to put finite, tangible dimensions around my time. Ninety-nine percent of my inability to say “no” is how much emotional power I give to the word. By defining each hour of my day as a literal bucket I’m able to look at my time more objectively. I can only sell/give away so many buckets before I run out. I can’t make more buckets until the next day. No emotion. Nothing personal. I just ran out of inventory.
Your personal time should be protected as sold inventory, too. Just because that time is there, doesn’t mean it’s available to others. You need that time to recharge, so the hours you sell/give to others are as productive and valuable as they can be.
These tangible units don’t have to be tied directly to time, either. They can represent your emotional capacity, your physical capabilities, etc. Anything that requires your energies. You need to remember, you are a finite resource and when you run out, it’s okay. No one can expect you to give what you don’t have.
“No” has a sense of finality to it. Saying it can be scary because it often feels like you’re shutting the door on an opportunity. It’s even worse when you’re not the one closing the door. Someone else is cutting you off from your chosen path. “No, we won’t give you this job.” “No, this is not what we’re looking for.” “No, we aren’t interested in your product.”
But “no” is not the same as “the end.” There are a million reasons someone might tell you “no” and it isn’t necessarily an indictment of you or your talents. Even when they make the rejection about you, it’s still probably not about you. It doesn’t mean quit. It just means it’s time to pivot.
There’s a lesson in every “no” that you’ll never learn if you immediately throw up your hands and give up after every rejection. Though you are allowed to do that temporarily if it’s what you need to move on. Sometimes we just need to feel our feels after a setback. But, after you feel them you must move on. Figure out what, if anything, you did to elicit the “no,” adjust the pitch and try again.
Plus, once you learn that “no” isn’t personal, you can start to feel more comfortable saying it yourself.
Knowing When Not to Accept “No”
Though it’s important to learn how to hear “no” and move on, there is something to be said for rejecting the “no” when your needs are not being met or when you know you’re asking for something you deserve. This might be a boss saying “no” to the raise you’ve earned or a friend who isn’t giving you the support you need. It might even be the hiring manager turning you down for the job you’ve always wanted.
The biggest battle with the unacceptable “no” is knowing what to do next. Sometimes it means reframing the question with more to backup the ask. Sometimes it means bringing the question to someone else who knows you’re worth the “yes.” Sometimes it means taking a step back and determining out what you can do to earn the “yes.”
It’s a challenge to keep pushing for what you really want. These are the “nos” that will make you stronger in the long run.
Regardless of whether you’re saying it, receiving it or refusing it, the biggest thing to recognize is that “no” is just a word. It doesn’t deserve all the power we give it. In most cases, it’s not the career-ending, opportunity-killing magic word we sometimes believe it to be. Its real power lies in giving you space recharge, teaching you lessons you need to learn and challenging you to be better.
/written By Eliza Green