the badass art of saying No (+ creating what you want)

 

 

A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble. — Gandhi

Every creative change begins with an intentional ‘No’ to the status quo. — William Ury

Once upon a time, someone asked Michelangelo about his creative process. Dude replied:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

When it comes to creating the life that you want – as opposed to living a life that others create for you – the ability to say No is like the chisel you use to “hew away the rough walls” that would imprison the “lovely apparition” of both your self and your vision for your life.

‘No’ is a power word, and a lot of us tend to be ambivalent about power. We see it as a threat to relationship: you can have one or the other, power or love, but not both.

You’re afraid that if you say No you will damage the relationship and create conflict and hurt feelings. So you sacrifice your power and give a weakly puling ‘yes’ that undermines you and leaves you resentful (and, possibly, passive-aggressive).

It might help to do what William Ury suggests in his book THE POWER OF A POSITIVE NO: to “root your no in a higher yes”.

When you say No to anything, you’re saying Yes to something else.

It pays to get very clear on what that “something else” is.

Like your values.

If you want to say No, why do you want to say No? What do you want instead? What is your intention?

When I was living in Japan in my early twenties, I taught ESL for nine hours a day and spent another hour on the train. I was also trying to finish my PGTLNA (post-graduate transgressive literary novel attempt). My intention was to become a published writer. There wasn’t a lot of time left outside work, so I was constantly having to choose: say No to a social life and Yes to the novel, or Yes to the novel and No to a social life. Since I had so much wrapped up in my writing – hopes and dreams and a sense of identity – I said No to a lot of social invitations and missed out on some potential friendships (as well as opportunities to tour various temples

…although I still saw a lot of temples. I got so templed out that when I was on a plane flying into LA I looked down at the city and thought: where are all the damn temples? But I digress.)

I did, however, manage to finish my Post Graduate Transgressive Literary Novel Attempt, which landed me my first literary agent.

When it comes to telling people ‘no’, I can be just as avoidant and cowardly as anybody. At the same time, I’ve learned the importance of blocking out time for creative work and creating a strong living boundary around those hours. That boundary is the word No, whether it’s to my personal assistant who needs me to sign a zillion things, a friend who wants to catch a matinee, or even the Internet (I use a program called Freedom to take me offline for ninety minutes at a time).

I also use the word ‘No’ to protect my time with my kids, my other highest priority. ‘No’ is my shield. It protects what I care about. It gives me the space to create what I want: a novel, this blog, a deeper relationship with my family. I can shake up my own personal status quo — or refine it.

It’s a lot easier to say No when you know you’re saying Yes to yourself and what’s important to you.

Grounding your ‘No’ in the sense of a deeper ‘Yes’ creates energy, clarity and determination.

It also clears the way for a better ‘Yes’. Ury tells of a conversation he had with Warren Buffett:

“Over breakfast one day, he confided in me that the secret to creating his fortune lay in his ability to say No. ‘I sit there all day and look at investment proposals. I say, No, No, No, No, No, No – until I see one that is exactly what I am looking for. And then I say Yes. All I have to do is say Yes a few times in my life and I’ve made my fortune.’”

Ury emphasizes: Every important Yes requires a thousand Nos.

Your ‘No’ can also be a movement toward a reconstructed ‘Yes’.

You can redefine the terms. You’re not willing to do [whatever’s been proposed]…but you are willing to do [insert acceptable alternative here]. You can identify and state your needs while respecting the other person’s needs and crafting an alternative that honors both. That way, you can hold to your ‘No’ while still remaining connected to the other person: you keep both your power and the relationship.

And if an alternative isn’t found, or possible, or accepted….what you can still offer the other person is respect. ‘No’ does not have to be an attack word, nor does it have to be a rejection. It can be put forth in a warm and courteous manner (no matter how pissed off you might be feeling) while making it clear to the other person that it’s not them, it’s you.

A funny thing happens when you offer respect; you tend to get it in return.

But you can’t respect others if you don’t respect yourself. It’s through your own self-respect that you can see people for who they are, and make them feel heard, acknowledged and understood. When you say a ‘Yes’ that you don’t mean — that makes you kick yourself afterward — you kill your power and contaminate your relationship because of a lack of integrity.

A real ‘Yes’ is only a real ‘Yes’ when you have the ability to say a real ‘No’.

Jun 10, 2012
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9 comments · Add Yours

Great advice (and examples) Justine, and I especially like how you weave in respect and trying to find a mutually agreeable solution. That NO isn’t an offensive maneuver, it is merely a process to meet everyone’s needs.

Thanks!
-Dan

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Great post Justine.

This part in paticular resonates with me: “You’re afraid that if you say No you will damage the relationship and create conflict and hurt feelings. So you sacrifice your power and give a weakly puling ‘yes’ that undermines you and leaves you resentful (and, possibly, passive-aggressive).” I also tend to make poor, dull company when this happens. I want to be doing something else. But yet, when I do say no I have these terrible pangs of guilt sometimes.
Thus, I like how you offered this compromise: “You can identify and state your needs while respecting the other person’s needs and crafting an alternative that honors both. That way, you can hold to your No while still remaining connected to the other person: you keep both your power and the relationship.”

Thank you for this!

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I frequently joke that ‘No’ is my favorite word. ESPECIALLY with projects/clients that while the money would be nice; it would taking me away from my goals and not toward them.

I think just about all my creative colleagues and friends need to read this article.

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I seem to have phases. Sometimes I can say no easily and other times, that two letter single syllable will be screaming in my head but I’ll still sigh and say ‘yes’. Sometimes the ‘yes’ turns out to be good and I really get into it, other time it’s just as awful a drag on me as I thought, and then I regret it.

I think the no that is hard for me is the no I say after i’ve said the yes and realized it was a big big mistake to say so.

Nice post. :)

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Oh Yeah!!! Loved it! Shared it! And thanked TK for posting it! Otherwise i might not have found it!

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Thanks for the powerful reminder. I loved the Michael Angelo metaphor stunning. The balance between generosity and kindness to self by saying no to other versus generosity to other by saying yes is a constant tightrope walk. However, the ability to say no particularly in close relationships is the essence of sustainability,and flourishing connection.

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great piece. and this was quite deep… very title-appropriate.
“so I was constantly having to choose: say No to a social life and Yes to the novel, or Yes to the novel and No to a social life.”

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Thank you. That was brilliant – exactly what I needed to read.

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Don’t say yes if you can’t say no. It drove me crazy when my kids would tell me, “No.” Screams and threats didn’t work and they kept saying “no” and they were always right. I want my kids to say “No” in the right places even when others are pressuring them to say “Yes.” I love that my kids say “No.”

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