The superpower of saying “no”

Saying “no” is hard. Few people like telling someone else that they can’t have something. At best, the other person is going to be disappointed. They might get angry. They may break down in tears. They may yell, or they may just frown.

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

Ugh, just thinking about it makes me feel guilty.

Because saying “no” feels bad, we end up saying “yes” to a lot of stupid things and committing ourselves to a laundry list of regret.

“Yes, I’ll have that to you on Thursday (Even though I have 1000 other things I really need to be doing instead.).”

“Yes, feel free to call me next week (Even though I have zero interest in talking to you about the thing you are trying to sell me.).”

“Yes, we can do that (Even though what you just asked for is the worst idea anyone has ever had. Seriously, it’s like you climbed a mountain of stupid to win the Olympics of Dumb Ideas.).”

We all want others to like us. Most of us really do want to help and sometimes workplace culture dictates that “yes” is the only valid option. (Exit the building and set it on fire on the way out if that’s the kind of place you work.)

We associate saying “yes” with being friendly, helpful, kind, and a dozen other things we want to be and then we kill ourselves trying to make good on all the things we’ve committed to.

Of course there are those people who say “yes’ to everything with no intention of actually following through. I hope those people get eaten by bears.

Rarely do we think of our “yeses” as what they really are – eels (to borrow a metaphor from John Roderick). Eels aren’t bad, just like squirrels aren’t bad, they’re just eels. But if you let enough of them latch onto you, you’re gonna have some issues.

Too many eels will drink you dry and you can’t help anyone when there’s no blood left in your body.

Being selective about what you say “yes’ to isn’t being uncharitable or unkind – it’s being realistic. You (and in a work setting, your team) have limited time, attention, and resources. There is no reservoir of infinite “yeses” you can fall back on. Every commitment you make today is one you won’t be able to make or deliver on in the future.

That’s fine. It isn’t good or bad. It just is. Acknowledging it and folding that awareness into your daily operations doesn’t make you unkind. Sometimes, telling someone “no” is the kindest thing you can do.

“If we give you this thing, we can’t give you the other thing you asked for.”

There’s also always the factor of unseen or unacknowledged consequences.

“If I do what you’ve asked me to do, this other thing will literally explode and your house will burn down. Also, your dog will die and I’ll get a back injury.”

I’ve come to know a small number of people who are really good at telling others “no”, and I respect the heck out of them for it.

I try every day to get better at it. I’m pretty good at the “no”-part, less so at the “but here’s a similar, better idea that you also came up with and I am now repeating it back to you so that you know it was really your idea and not mine and oh my god is there a way to make you happy and also not do the terrible thing you asked me to do? “-part.

Image credit: sboneham