Learning To Love "No"

Nov 28, 2015
Image: A person in a white dress shirt holding up a yellow piece of paper with a black X on it

Image: A person in a white dress shirt holding up a yellow piece of paper with a black X on it

One of my favorite things for a partner (or friend, or client) to tell me is “no.”

Now before you start thinking today is opposite day or that I’ve lost it, let me explain.

Until someone tells me no, it is really hard for me to trust their yes.

Everyone knows that they could technically say “no” to any request or demand. No one can technically force someone else to do something barring the use of excessive physical force. However, we live in a culture that loves to talk about the importance of consent while at the same time enabling all sorts of coercion.

Don’t believe me? Let me give some examples.

Your boss asks you to come in on Saturday. You would really rather spend time with your family, so you initially ask your boss if it would be possible to wait until Monday. They say that they would rather it get done before Monday. Now you can say no to them, but if you do you risk your position at work. Your boss doesn’t even have to explicitly say that they will treat you differently; they can rely on our cultural norms about having a good work ethic to help finish the coercion for them.

Another example? Let’s say your friends all want to go out for drinks after dinner but you just started 30 days of strict paleo diet. You tell them that you don’t want to be tempted, but they say “come on, one drink won’t kill you.”

Now let’s say you’re in the middle of having sex with a partner and they ask you for something you’ve not done with them before. You care about this person and you want to make them happy and while you’re not sure you want to do what they asked for, you don’t want to disappoint them.

In all of these examples, no one is probably consciously aware of the ways that they’re being coercive. They think they’re getting the job done or helping a friend relax. And in both of these situations, your “no” is something that can have serious social, relationship, and work implications. So while you could say no, you’re likely to feel a certain amount of pressure to say yes.

People say “yes” or “okay” all the time when they mean “maybe” or “I’m not sure” or “I’m not comfortable but okay.”

In these situations, I want the person to say “no” or to ask for a conversation about it later. Because until I hear you telling me no, I can’t know for certain how many of your “yes” responses are true “yes” instead of assent borne of societal or unintentional coercion.

No is at the heart of a good yes. Once someone tells me no, I can see them setting a boundary, protecting themselves, and taking care of their own health. That’s amazing and makes every yes that much more meaningful.

I love a good “no.” Even if it means I don’t get what I wanted in that moment, in the long run I would much rather deal with temporary disappointments than to learn that someone has been agreeing while still feeling ambivalent or uncertain.

So how do we get better “no”s from people? By building a culture that reinforces and encourages those who tell us no.

Imagine you’re really interested in someone and you two run in the same circles. You think they’re super sexy and will sometimes make comments to that effect that you think are okay. Then, to you out of nowhere, they tell you that comments you’ve been making are making them feel uncomfortable and they want you to stop.

What do you do?

In that moment, you probably feel some shame and embarrassment. You’re dealing with rejection and rejection hurts. However, the way you react to this no means everything.

So what should you do? Thank them.

Thank them for taking care of themselves. Thank them for being clear. Thank them for taking the risk of upsetting you. Thank them for setting a boundary that is healthy to them. And then stop.

It’s that simple – when someone says “no,” thank them for it, and then adjust your behavior accordingly.

I know that this sounds so weird. Shouldn’t you try? Isn’t it okay to convince people? I will never tell you that it’s not okay to ever give something more than one shot. However, until we all start respecting people’s “no”s, until we stop punishing people through coercive tactics for using no, we will all still be in a culture of coercion.

I want a culture where the “yes” I get from someone is healthy and happy and reliable. And I want a culture where dealing with any negative consequences of “no” is the responsibility of the person receiving the no, not the person giving it.

So let’s all say “no” more often. And let’s all thank each other for having the courage and strength to say “no” when we want to. Because being able to trust in someone’s no is what makes their yes so amazing.

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