How to harness the audacious magic of saying no

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For some of us, saying no is hard, even anathema. I’ve been a people-pleaser for over five decades, but the seeds of saying no were sown when I left a vocation. Not only was I assaulted three times at work, but those I worked for were anything but sympathetic and it was time to say ‘no more’.

But as a publisher and editor I soon slid back into my old people-pleasing ways. This may not sound like much of a problem, but it is.

Why always saying yes isn’t healthy

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1. If you always say yes, what’s it’s worth?

When we agree to give time or skills or resources to something it should be of some import.

If you say yes to everything then nothing is more important or valuable in your life than anything else. The creative project that is your dream and passion, quality time with your family and friends — are these of no more weight than random requests or unreasonable calls to work more hours than a week contains?

2. If you always say yes you’ll end up in difficult situations

What might seem like making life easy life for the short-term is likely to become the albatross around your neck. C.S. Lewis captures it perfectly in The Screwtape Letters:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…

It’s so much more difficult to extricate yourself from a situation that doesn’t fit your values or that fills you with dread than it is to say no at the outset.

3. If you always say yes, what are you avoiding?

People who say yes a great deal tend to have problems with conflict. Not only with actual conflict but even with imagining that someone might get upset or angry with them. This can be so debilitating that they’ll say yes rather than risk not seeming pleasant and appeasing.

If the imagined outcome of saying no to someone frightens you, it’s time to take stock and learn that the world won’t end if someone doesn’t like your ‘no’. It might be uncomfortable, but you are not responsible for someone else’s response and you are not there to walk on.

The audacious magic of no

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1. Saying no gives you space to focus on what matters

If you want to feel time-rich, don’t be busy with things that don’t matter. Instead focus and pay attention to the things that matter. Be present. The ‘more’ that matters is not quantity, but depth.

Saying yes to things that leave you lukewarm or because you want to appease others is a recipe for self-negation.

2. Saying no signals choices

If you don’t make choices, sometimes difficult ones, then you are not giving anything priority. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown comments that:

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

Whatever comes along, whether it’s a pay increase or a distraction, you need to ask whether it is in accord with your vision. If the answer is no, don’t say yes for the sake of short-term gain. Don’t say yes to appease someone.

Of course there are times when we say yes to something we’re unsure of because we want to try something new or test an idea. But when your heart is sinking at the same time as you are saying ‘yes’ then you know it’s the wrong way to go.

3. Saying no prevents burnout

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm Boxer is the most loyal and hardworking of animals. He’s not very bright but he never stops labouring — ‘I must work harder’ is one of his mottos. When he collapses from exhaustion the pigs report they’ve sent him to a vet. But in fact they send him for slaughter at the knacker’s yard in return for a case of whiskey.

I’m not advocating becoming closed or ungiving but we do have to make choices if we want to be free of the downward cycle of overwhelm. Saying yes to things that aren’t essential or that are more than you can manage will drain your energy.

A few years ago after a difficult financial period for Cinnamon Press I took on more and more work. The trend escalated and we woke up one morning to find our forward list of publications topping 30 a year with only two staff. We also had a poetry journal, several poetry pamphlets, four literary competitions, and three writing courses to manage.

When I got an Arts Council grant that enabled me to take time off to research and write in Budapest we confronted how out of control the work was becoming. I came back determined to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press. And that meant making hard but vital decisions about what we publish, and how many titles.

If you want to avoid overwhelm, you have to learn to say no sometimes.

How to say the magic word

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Even if we can see that always saying yes isn’t healthy and appreciate the benefits that come from saying no, we don’t always have the courage or the skills to do it.

It takes practise, but Greg McKeown talks about the power of a gracious no. Before we get to the stage of saying no, we sometimes need time to think of course. There are people who are adept at getting a yes out of most people because they’re good at putting the other person on the spot. Don’t be strong-armed. If you feel pressured, ask for time, say you have to check with others, that you need to follow up other commitments first. You can get back in a timely manner, but you don’t have to always decide on the spot.

You can also make counter-offers rather than either a yes or no —

I can’t do that for you, but I could …

I can’t make it then, but this would be possible …

I could do this for you, but it would mean I’d have to drop the other favour you asked to make space …

I can’t help with that, but have you thought of asking Y …

If it’s a definite no, though, you need to communicate that.

1. Be clear

If we are not clear about our vision and priorities it’s hard to say no. But if we have a good sense of our values and mission then it’s easier to sense when something isn’t for us. When I was taking on more and more work it was because I’d slipped into a survival mode and had lost the distinctive vision I’d begun the press with. Taking time to refocus changed that. It’s easier now to say no because I have once more have a strong sense of what fits.

There’s a story that Norah Ephron was once asked why she repeatedly worked with the same actors, people such as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Her answer was ‘because they’re the same food group’.

With a bit of clarity, we know when a person or a project is the right food group for us.

When we have that clarity, we should pass it on. Keeping others dangling with non-commital maybes is much more annoying than a gracious, honest ‘no’.

2. Be firm

A firm no doesn’t have to be blunt. We can thank the person for thinking of us. We can listen and empathise without taking on a problem as our own. We can suggest other solutions. We can even avoid using the word ‘no’:

I’d love to but I’m completely at capacity for the next …

It’s lovely of you to ask, but it’s not something that appeals to me …

3. Be focussed

You know the value of your time and you know what your priorities are. Every yes is a commitment, big or small, to give emotional energy or time or resources.

I’m a fan of giving but not on a random, scatter principle. Your giving will be diluted and meaningless if it’s reactive and responds to every demand and whim.

We can’t do everything. Choices have to be made. When you say yes, mean it.

4. Be brave

Saying no can make some of us so anxious there are physical symptoms. The only way through is to do it. There are people who will push us to change the answer. There are people who will show disappointment or even anger. There will be some people who like you less.

But what we will discover more often is that our imaginations exaggerated. And it might be that many people have more respect for us when we show we value our time and make thoughtful decisions.

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