Monday 13 February 2012

For a "yes" to be meaningful, "No" is also needed

Saying "No" can be hard. Yet without a good solid daily dose of "No", it becomes pretty meaningless to say "Yes." Too many yes's leave a person overloaded with so many promises that eventually they can't all be kept.

Most people know this intellectually, but not all of us are as clear as we might be about when we say "no" and how we say it. Today's post offers three tools to back you up in getting your "yes" to be more meaningful to others, and more aligned with your own true intentions.

Saying "No" doesn't mean I don't like you
Dr Angeles Arrien invites us to drop some emotional baggage from our language. In her remarkable book The Fourfold Way, she points out how often people often project all sorts of personal stuff onto words that are meant to give information and set clear boundaries without blame:
  • "yes" is often taken to mean "I like you and agree with you"
  • "no" is often taken to mean "I'm rejecting you or disagreeing with you"
 In contrast, we have the option to choose that
  • "yes" acknowledges a viewpoint or perspective and doesn't necessarily mean agreement
  • "no" simply honours a limit and a boundary and indicates the ability to respect what one is willing to do or not do at this point in time.
So the call is out for us to honour and respect our personal limits and boundaries (which includes saying "no" when we reach a personal limit) and respect the limits and boundaries of others (including taking their "no" as information rather than personal judgement of ourselves or our pet projects).

Easier said than done.

Daily disciplines to cut the clutter
I was impressed to read Tony Schwartz on the Harvard Business Review network reminding us of some very practical tips for decluttering our lives:
  • Schedule and honour the time in your diary for the things that are important but not urgent.
  • Make time every day to set your priorities.
  • Do the most important thing in your day, first: when your brain and body are at their freshest. Leave the emails and admin till later!
  • Take at least one scheduled break each morning and afternoon, as well as getting away from your desk for lunch. Use this time to lift your head up and see beyond the immediate demands, reconnect with the big picture.
In essence, Schwartz reminds us to build ritual into our lives in a way that makes space for strategic thinking, connecting with your leadership team, time with family - whatever is really important. Under the catchy phrase "No is the new Yes", his steps summarised above can help you to stop those urgent demands for your "yes" from swamping your real priorities.

When all else fails, say "Yes" slowly
We live in a world where the expectations and projections of ourselves and others create very real pressures, including those of bosses, spouses, sponsors and others for us to say "yes" when we should be saying "no." So I was thrilled last week when Professor Margaret Orr, Director of the Wits University Centre for Learning and Teaching Development, told me about "saying yes slowly."

It's a kind of strategic retreat when the demands for a "yes" feel overwhelming. You start with something open-ended like "I'd like to help, but I have a lot of other commitments," and don't actually say "yes" until you have asked three questions, designed at least to slow down the flood of demands, such as:
  • Have you considered who else can do this for you?
  • Why is it so urgent?
  • Is there another way you can achieve the result you want?
You get the drift. Be ready to say yes, but get the demander to consider alternatives. Often, this discipline can make the demand go away. If not, at least you have got the other party to think - and also to notice the impact of the demand on you.

I invite you to say "no" at least as often as you say "yes". Do it mindfully, compassionately and above all, without the energetic baggage Angeles Arrien warned us about - but don't miss your daily ration of saying "no." That way your "yes" will have real meaning and you will be more accountable to yourself and others.


  1. Extremely helpful, thank you. And great to get this advice in a series of digestible points rather than having to say "yes" to reading a huge thesis on the subject. Am going to try out the mindful compassionate no starting today.

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