I’m teaching my daughter how to say no. She’s two years old and currently going through a culture shock. After spending more than a year in Germany, we visited Turkey for a month to spend time with our families. While growing up socially distanced from other people in Germany during a pandemic, she started experiencing close contact even from strangers in Turkey. Random people would stop walking on the street only to smile and talk to my daughter. The first time we went to a playground, a couple of kids came running to her, trying to hug and kiss. We know being physical is normal behavior here—it’s the Mediterranean way. However, our daughter was terrified. She didn’t like to be grabbed by strangers. She didn’t know what to do—so she held onto our hands, petrified. I told her that that’s how these kids show their love. However, I continued, that’s her body, and if she didn’t like what they do, she should say no and stop them. She should not allow anyone to do anything to her that she didn’t want.
Going a few years back, I didn’t know how to say no. Heck, I did not even want to say no. Partly because I thought I would disappoint others if I say no to a particular request. Most of the time, though, I was incredibly hungry to take and crush whichever task I was able to start. When I had nothing to do, this behavior worked well for me because I learned a lot. However, incoming requests began to pile up in time, and I started to become a bottleneck. Still, I kept saying yes but also started prioritizing the tasks I’m getting. Prioritization helped me finish the most important tasks at that moment. But I forgot one thing: There will always be something more important than the task waiting in the backlog for three months.
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The rough story above is the story of the past 80% of my career. Getting from always yes to mostly no was no easy task. But I eventually learned how to say no, so that someone else can take it over and finish the job in time. By saying no, I also delegated the prioritization of the task to the requester—this only made sense because I had no skin in the game for that specific task except the opportunity to learn more. Ensuring that you’re not a bottleneck for the business or caring for other people’s growth were good reasons. However, there is one more crucial reason to say no: If I don’t want to do something, no one can force me. Simple as that.
Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart
To understand how we can benefit from saying no, we should first grasp what yes means. A yes, to an honest person is a commitment. Whenever we say yes, we let other people expect something from us. We promise to commit to that expectation. The problem is that we quickly say yes to too many things without thinking if we could live up to the expectation. When the question leads to more severe commitments like a marriage proposal or having a puppy, we think more before saying yes. The more dangerous type of yes is the one we respond to less serious commitments. We don’t think as much when invited to a party tonight, for example. However, by saying yes, we might be breaking our commitment to delivering the weekly post because now it won’t be possible to finish it on time. Saying yes “is a beautiful thing—emotionally, spiritually, and even professionally—to be generous, to be supportive,”says Judith Sills. However, when we make too many commitments, we face problems delivering them, which breaks our integrity.
The workplace may come on top where we say yes a lot, although we wish to be saying the opposite. There are many types of everyday conversations that we should be using no, but perhaps we can’t find the soul in ourselves to do so. It could present itself as a request from someone that you haven’t told no to before. You can also find yourself in a discussion where you believe saying yes would make a lousy business outcome. Most of the time, these situations include you and your manager. “How do you say no to your boss? After all, it’s your boss!” says Robert C. Martin. He discusses the need with a question: “Aren’t you supposed to do what your boss says?” No, he adds. “Slaves are not allowed to say no. Laborers may be hesitant to say no. But professionals are expected to say no.”
Work is not the only place where we feel uneasy saying no. It may even be harder to reject a friend who’s asking you a favor. I always felt like yes should be the first response we should consider, especially when the question comes from a person we care about. However, that yes may not always align with your principles or priorities. Saying no could make things awkward between you and your friend, but that’s not a reason to keep saying yes. Let’s say your friend asks you to lie about something. It’s a small lie without foreseeable consequences. What would you do? If lying occasionally is not a problem for you, then saying yes would make sense. However, if you have a principle on keeping your honesty, then lying for your friend would make you feel miserable. A similar occasion can happen in a much less serious setup as well. Consider you have another priority at the time, but your friend wanted to talk to you. You should be able to say no. It’s your time; you allocated it for something, and unless it’s a serious matter, your friend would also not mind waiting until you’re free to talk.
Apart from the need to say no to other people, we might find ourselves needing to say no to ourselves. We overlook the fact that saying no to others begins with saying no to the self. If your friend asks you to meet for a drink and you know that you should skip, you can still feel like saying yes internally. The reason is simple: It’s tempting to go out with a friend. Before rejecting your friend’s invitation, you need to be able to control yourself and say no to yourself. There could be many reasons such as you need to finish the task you’ve been working on or you decided to stay home because you don’t want to spend any money outside for the month. In the end, it starts with you and how much you can control yourself based on your principles and priorities.
One crucial aspect to consider when deciding what to say is maybe later. Beware of saying maybe later. It’s generally a fallback mechanism we all have when we don’t feel comfortable saying no but also don’t want to say yes. It might be a good idea to say it, “if this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person,”says Leo Babauta, the founder of Zen Habits. However, as soon as you have some free time to think about it, you should consider and provide your final answer. “While it's fine to ask for a few days to think a request over, don't take too long or ignore a request,” adds Rebecca A. Clay in her feature article Just Say No. Whether you’re talking to your manager, your friend, or yourself, don’t keep the person hanging with a “maybe later.” The answer creates oblivion where all parties involved are just waiting for a decision to be made and possessing everyone’s mental capacity until the final answer arrives.
Are you comfortable saying no when you need to? How are you coping with friends and loved ones when you say no? What about your relationship with strangers? Let me know in the comments.
Bonus Video: The Art of Saying No by Matt D’Avella
The Power of No by Judith Sills Ph.D. on Psychology Today
Excerpt from the book Clean Coder by Robert C. Martin
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life by Leo Babauta on Lifehack
Just Say No by Rebecca A. Clay on American Psychological Association