5 Tips for How to Survive Hearing the Word “No”
by Dawn Boutcher

The Power of Saying No

For most of us, the first word we learned to say was “no”.  Toddlers learn the power of this word quickly and wield that power without hesitation: “No, I will not eat my broccoli”; “No, I will not go to bed”; “No, I will not share my toys with you”.

As we get older, it becomes apparent that a lot of people don’t like to hear the word “no”.  It causes them to scrunch up their faces, stomp their feet, or even cry. “No” becomes a barrier. To fit in means to “play nice”. It becomes abundantly clear that saying “yes” is preferred and that we can gain significant benefits from being compliant – fewer arguments, less stress, more compliments, and higher praise.  We take this understanding of the word “no” straight into our adulthood where it firmly roots itself in both our professional and personal relationships.  To get ahead and be successful we believe we must block our natural inclination to assert our needs.

Well, what is good for the community is good for everyone, right?  And if saying “yes” is helping the group then it must be the right thing to do.  If I say yes to that extra assignment, they will notice my work and I will get promoted.  If I say yes to the bake sale, they will let me into their mom club.  If I say yes to my mother-in-law, she will finally accept that I’m the right one (okay, maybe that’s asking too much).

“Playing nice” doesn’t benefit the greater community if it results in making us feel overwhelmed, overburdened, and overstressed.  I’m here to tell you that we’ve got to put down our outdated expectations of what nice looks like and reclaim the power of “no”.

I’m certain that I’m not the first person to tell you that standing up for yourself is important.  There are countless blogs and books and studies on this subject full of advice on how to assert our needs. “No” frees you to take a different course, one of your own choosing.  “No” shows others that you mean what you say and that you are determined.  Some will suggest that you can say “no” by not saying it at all – just use different words so you don’t seem mean.

Instead, we should learn how to hear the word “no”. Accepting “no” as a reasonable response empowers its use.  If others can positively respond to our assertiveness it will reduce negative impacts- both real and perceived. We’ll see far fewer scrunched-up faces and hear fewer comments about not being a team player.

So, since the internet likes lists, here are my top 5 tips for how to survive hearing the word “no”.

1. Change your vocabulary

No one likes a difficult person – one that is defiant, stubborn, or obstinate. These are the words we use to describe individuals who are using the word “no”.  Since we’ve all been conditioned to believe that “yes” equals helpful and helpful is good, hearing anything to the contrary is irritating.  The first step in creating a space where individuals can assert themselves is to put these terms and their negative connotations in the trash.  They serve no purpose in our personal or professional relationships and only bar us from really understanding one another.

2. Just breathe

Our first inclination is to guard our own beliefs and to thwart any attack on them. You’ve got to let down your guard, here. Take a deep breath and truly listen to the points that the other person is trying to make.  They may come up with ideas you never could have imagined.  They may make a point that changes the trajectory of the project. Being open to another’s way of thinking does not mean you have to agree.  Ultimately, you may find that there are still situations where you cannot accept “no”, but now you have more information and perhaps can alter the original plan to account for the needs and concerns of others.

3. Ask for advice

The more collaborative you can be, the more accommodating you may find your associates.  Asking for others’ opinions eliminates a lot of the need for them to say “no”.  Folks are more likely to offer their assistance if they’ve had a hand in the decision process.  Ask any mother who is trying to get their kid to eat vegetables.  Choice matters; it makes us feel valued so keep the conversations open.

4. Be consistent

When you use the word “no”, mean it.  Take time to come to your own conclusions and then stick with them.  This will demonstrate that you are to be trusted and that you are comfortable asserting yourself.  This is an excellent way to show others how to be confident, like you are. Of course, you can change your mind, but be clear about why you did. And remember, don’t change your mind just to make others happy.  That’s not a good enough reason to take back a “no”.

5. Advocate for others

The ability to say “no” doesn’t come easy for some.  Be the person in the room who makes space for individuals to find their footing.  Support constructive criticism and dissenting opinions.  Be gracious when hearing them tell you “no” so that they are encouraged to continue asserting themselves.

Reclaiming the power of “no” is in everyone’s best interest.  If you can say “no” and I can hear “no”, we will be able to get much more accomplished, and with less strife.  Wouldn’t you agree that sounds nice right about now?

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