How to Say No

The ability to say 'no' is underdeveloped in many people, resulting in overwork, unhappiness, and missed opportunities. An appropriate 'no' will keep you focused on your goals, stop you buying more clutter for your cluttered home on credit, and will build your resolve to achieve. Furthermore your 'no' will also help those around you to develop and grow. How do you imagine that you learned how to eat, talk, or to control your basic bodily functions? Hard as it may be to accept, it was not a constant stream of 'yes' and positive reinforcement that got you to where you are now. You had to learn when you were off course, what wasn't working or what wasn't wanted. That is where 'no' came in. As we will see, there is real power in 'no'.

Perversely 'no' is a positive word. However, people are rarely aware just how positive and important 'no' is. The few articles and books on the subject are superficial and do little to educate you on how to say 'no' effectively. The reason for this is that people are biased in favor of the 'yes' that we naively assume others want to hear. However, people actually want you to be honest and direct, as much they want you to be accommodating and half-heartedly helpful. Do not fall into the trap of becoming a 'yes' person and invest a little thought in how to say 'no', who to say 'no' to, and when to say 'no'.

The mechanisms of a 'no' are quite straightforward. There are the following types of 'no': Direct, Explanatory, Excusatory, and Indirect.

The direct 'no' simply turns down a request. This is a powerful statement. 'Boss, can we go home early?'; 'No'. People in positions of authority have the ability to use the direct 'no' and thereby help their charges (hopefully) do the right things and provide a reinforcement of their power. The direct 'no' is also useful in your casual exchanges, and it gives some power to its user. In general it will raise the hackles of those you contradict with a 'no', so be sure of your ground, but when you can, simply say 'no' and watch your power and status rise a micro-notch or two.

Short and sweet though the direct 'no' might be, sales people, small children, and spouses have learned that it is profitable to explore such a response in detail. Determined exploration can change the 'no' into a 'yes'. On such occasions, it is best to employ an explanatory 'no' immediately. Hence, the timeless classic 'no, because I say so'. When used as a first response to a request, the young requestor immediately knows that further inquiry will result in a fruitless exploration of a reason which has already been stated. Other examples might be 'no, I am vegetarian', 'no, for personal reasons', 'no, because I am late'. The requester will generally back off faced with a topic area that most people will not want to explore. If a question comes back, a good strategy is to stubbornly repeat the explanation. This will see off the most ardent requestor exhibiting a little too much self interested curiosity.

You can also phrase your 'no' with an excuse. 'I would have been delighted to attend, were it not for the fact that I have to see my child's open house'. An excusatory 'no' is generally weak but appealing as someone else is to blame. 'I can't do that it is against company policy'. We have all heard these excuses and instinctively know when the facts do not stack up; when the coworker pulls the wool over the supervisor's eyes, with yet another excuse to stay home. So excusatory 'no's have several downsides: you will lose power, self respect, and can lose the respect of those around you at the same time. The trick is to know when an excuse based 'no' can be tolerated by the world, but most of the time it is best to stay away from excuses. The bands of primates in which we live are used to monitoring for shirkers in their midst, because shirking will be bad for the band, and when detected they will make the primate perpetrator's life miserable in order to discourage this characteristic. So, to avoid being the friend ejected from the group, exclude excuses from your vocabulary.

Indirect 'no's direct the questioner from the original question with subtlety. 'In principle, yes, however... (lengthy, boring discussion deleted)..., so in practice the answer is no'. Once you get to know the questioner, you can respond with 'in principle yes, but in practice no'. This type of no is treasured by academics, who like to weakly begin with agreeing only to contradict after they hope that the recipient has nodded off. Politicians are similarly effective at indirect 'no's. The question will be gently talked around with statements such as 'the real question is whether my opponent can be trusted in any way ...(length, boring discussion deleted)..., and so returning to the essence of your original question, I am in favor of motherhood and apple pie'.

Explanatory 'no's are most effective. Here is an example. 'No, I am sorry, you cannot have sugary cereal X, because it will cause your teeth to decay and will make you fat and prematurely diabetic; and I do not believe that the stale box next to it marked organic will be any better for you, despite its higher price'.

So the basics of saying 'no' are straightforward. Exercise your skills at saying 'no', and say 'yes' to a better life.

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