A long time ago, a coach told me “no is a complete sentence.” I’m still marveling at it today. This simple phrase contains a shocking amount of life wisdom.
I often recall this saying when someone asks me how to say no in a way that won’t anger people. (When I became attuned to it, I found this is a surprisingly common question!) When the conversation deepens a little, it becomes clear that they’re also afraid the other person will continue pushing. So they want to decline the request with finality, but without angering. This seems like a difficult combination.
I understand this dilemma, because I struggle with it too. What’s worked for me is to practice being mindful in those moments when someone asks me something and I want to say no. Rather than focusing on the other person and their feelings, I bring my attention to myself. I become a spectator of my own thoughts and feelings. It’s not easy, because at a moment like this, there’s a lot going on.
But I’ve found a treasure trove of opportunity to understand myself more deeply. I have seen, variously: anger at the other person, anger at myself, guilt, feelings of being worth less than the other person, feelings of powerlessness, feelings of overwhelm, consciousness of having sabotaged myself, and more.
In no particular order, here are some of my experiences and things I’ve learned from practicing and applying “no is a complete sentence” in my life.
I’ve been surprised at how much I overestimate people’s displeasure at hearing no. Generally, I fear they’re going to react much more strongly than they do. It turns out that saying no doesn’t make people try to punish you. Who would have thought it?
I’ve learned that if I can’t say no, I can’t say yes either. If I haven’t been willing and able to say no, every time I say yes is potentially at least a partial lie, because I can’t say yes to everything. Being able to say no makes it possible to wholeheartedly commit to yes.
I’ve learned that I may choose to give an explanation, but I don’t always owe one, and my first instinct is usually to over-explain. By observing, I’ve noticed this is nearly universal; people usually say no, and then add reasons why. One person explained why he does this: “denying without a reason breeds resentment; nobody likes to be treated like a child.” I disagree, but I understand—again because I used to feel this way too. The thinking is that a reason will help the other person feel better and understand why you have to say no. But my experience has been—and this is what my mentor was teaching me—that’s not what happens. The explanation doesn’t come across as strengthening, but as weakening. It telegraphs that you’re unable to simply say no, that you feel like your no isn’t really a final decision. It signals that you’re falling back on explanations to justify the “no” that you don’t really believe in. And it turns out that if you’re on the submissive side of the personality spectrum, people on the dominant side will immediately engage you in the argument you’re inviting. And they will win, every time. You’ll end up saying yes because you rely on reasons, and you’re not as skilled at defending those reasons as the other person is at attacking them.
(If you’re on the submissive side of the personality spectrum, you are much more likely to believe that a simple no is insulting to dominant people. Those very same people are much more likely not to be offended. Think about that!)
I learned that I was usually offering a reason to avoid my discomfort at simply stopping after no. The person hearing the “no” had no negative reaction to a simple, straightforward answer, but I was cultured to believe that was rude. Rather than embracing and being with my discomfort, I had a habit of running from it. This impulse undermined me and set me up to fail many times before I became more conscious of what I was really doing.
Google Inbox, surprisingly, taught me a lot about saying no simply. At some point they added automatic quick-replies, ready to send at the click of a button. One of the suggestions was simply “I’m not interested.” I saw it a bunch of times, but I always felt it was too blunt and rude, so I added an explanation at the end. Then one day I tried it without added commentary, and nothing bad happened. I tried it some more, and more, and more, and the results were impossible to ignore: it works really well! Now I freely respond “I’m not interested,” when I’m not interested.
A similar thought is the acronym JADE, which stands for “Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain.” JADE creates circular arguments, especially with people who are difficult to deal with. Instead, state your position once, and not more than once. Repetition and emphasis undermine the strength and meaning of your statement, as anyone who has trained dogs will know.
Saying “no,” being willing to put a period after it and make it a complete sentence, is simply life-changing. It lets you prioritize your true priorities. It helps you respect your own time, which should be far more valuable than the other person’s time. It makes your “yes” truly meaningful. It helps you speak your truth without angering the other person and without inviting coercion. If you haven’t tried it, it’s certainly worth trying a few times to see how it works for you!
Acknowledgments and Further Reading
Presented without comment or endorsement:
- An earlier philosophical rambling on a similar topic, “No Needs No Apologies”
- JADE - Out of the Fog
- Esdras Beleza on Twitter: “There’s a book about it, Essentialism by @GregoryMcKeown. It talks about saying the “easy no and hard yes”, and focusing on what matters most. More than any tool or language skill, I believe that communication + saying “no” is the key to what people call seniority.”