The Challenges Of No; The Temptations Of Yes

“No” is an awfully powerful word.

It is a rejection. It is a wall. It is not an entry point. It is not a consultative word. It does not serve as the basis for dialogue or exploration. It is a full stop. Period. End of statement.

It’s an uncomfortable word to hear. If someone tells us “no” when we ask something of them, we take it as rejection. It is an affront. We feel bad for asking the question. We feel we must be bad, that the answer was not “yes”.

“No” is also a difficult word to utter, however. When something asks something of us, we feel valued. We feel appreciated. We feel important. We feel in some way necessary, or instrumental, or even vital, to the progress of getting things done. We don’t want to disappoint, or anger, or reject.

There is an interesting paradox here. The more we say “no”, the more we control our time, our activities and our commitments. The more we say “yes”, the more included we feel, but also potentially the more out of control we become.

Part of the temptation to resist “no” and say “yes”, of course, is about ego. We want to be involved. We want to be needed. Many of us thrive on busy. This is not news, per se. Busy-ness is, for some, a badge of honour. That is, right up until it kills us, sometimes literally. We say this last week with the unfortunate demise of a Merrill Lynch intern after more than a few all-nighters.

The troubling thing for me on hearing the news was that I’ve been there. In fact, I lived there for an extended period of time; for years, in fact. I not only embraced, but revelled, in what I could accomplish in a 24 hour period. It is a surprising amount, if you are willing to sacrifice pretty much everything else (including sleep, relationships, play, relaxation or anything that looks like ‘you time’, ‘me time’ or ‘us time’).

I spent a great number of years saying “yes” to most things, thriving on the fact that there was always more work than there were hours in the day, and running on a constant treadmill (hamster wheel?) of activity. And then I made a decision to stop, and to deliberately walk away from the circumstances and environment that drove me to that behaviour (and that I had no small direct part in creating). I have been confronting the consequences (both positive and negative) of that decision ever since.

Lately, I have been saying “no” a lot more. I have been choosier about the work that I do, trying to focus on the work that I enjoy and the work that I know I can bring exceptional value to doing. I have been trying to approach opportunities by examining them through a lens of ‘is this what I want to be doing?’. If it aligns, I pursue it. If it doesn’t align, I say no.

That doesn’t mean saying “no” is particularly easy. In fact, it’s still awfully hard. By way of example, I recently said “no” to a speaking opportunity in Australia, one I had previously committed to attend. Now, normally this is something I would leap at. I love to speak. I want to see Australia. I have friends I could have visited. At the same time, it would be a week of my time, just to be able to travel and participate. I would not have been paid. And most problematic for me were issues of ensuring that my travel expenses (not inconsiderable) would have been ultimately covered. And so, reluctantly, I withdrew my participation.

They weren’t happy about that answer, and I had an interesting phone call where I was asked, in essence, what they could do to have me participate. Given that I had communicated my intention not to attend back in June, there wasn’t much; I had released the dates in my calendar. But at the same time, that was exactly the wrong time to be asking that question. I had already said “no”, and now they wanted to make it a “yes”. It would have been far better to approach it in a way that progressed to that “yes” in the first place.

Despite that clarity, it was still a difficult conversation, including for me. I don’t like to disappoint. I don’t like to back away from a commitment that I have made. I like to participate in events. It would have been easy to go along with a decision that did not make sense, to accommodate and not make waves, even though it was no longer in my best interests to do so. That is what is hard about saying “no”. It takes effort and commitment to be unwavering in the face of other peoples’ desire to have you provide a different answer. It requires a level of confidence and clarity that we often don’t have.

That is the challenge with simply taking the advice offered in the Globe & Mail article on ‘Why do we work ourselves to death?’. Learning to say “no” strategically first requires knowing what we are trying to do, being able to evaluate whether an opportunity moves us further towards that goal (directly or indirectly) and having the fortitude and confidence to make a choice and stick with it. Our ego will at times want otherwise. Other people will often want otherwise. But our sanity—and our lives—demand that we figure out how to make “no” stick.

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