The Importance of Hearing the Word “No”

Most time management and productivity advice out there contains a solid, effective suggestion: Get comfortable saying the word “no.” Decline unnecessary meetings. Ask for someone else to take on a project when you’re swamped. Don’t want to go have lunch with your old college roommate? Then just say no!

It’s good advice. But just saying no isn’t enough. You have to hear it too. And not just when other people are following that same advice from all the efficient, well-meaning advisers out there.

Getting comfortable with rejection is key to a good life. Here’s why.

Fear of rejection leads to missed opportunities

Most people hate hearing the word no. It’s unbelievable how far out of their way people will go to avoid it. “No” is seen as a personal attack or a strike against us in our minds. It provokes us into defensiveness or anger or even pain.

Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say “But what if they say no?” How many times have you thought it or said it yourself? It’s an insidious little thought. If they say no, you’ll have to experience all the negative thoughts and perceptions you’ve built up around this concept: that “no” means you’re wrong, stupid for asking, or not even worth consideration. That’s some pretty heavy stuff for one of the shortest words in the English language.

As a result, people avoid asking. “It’s not worth hearing no,” we tell ourselves. So when your manager asks if you have any questions at your yearly review, you don’t say, “I’ve taken on more responsibilities than anyone on the team. I’d like a bigger raise.” Instead, you shrug it off. It’s all good. No more questions.

So you go through the next year with your meager $0.25/hour raise. You suffer through a crush without ever asking the person of your dreams if they’d like to get coffee sometime, date style. Your best friend never learns that you desperately want her to offer to take your kids for the day. You miss out.

You contribute less in discussions that matter

In the same vein as those missed opportunities, fear of hearing the word “no” also makes us censor our ideas. We assume that if we speak boldly or ask for sweeping changes to be made, we will somehow be seen as greedy, self-serving, or unrealistic. It’s not just in business, either. Our personal lives are so focused on reaching for middle ground that we start seeking it before we even know whether there is a difference in an opinion. We assume from the start that our views, wants, or ideas are extremes simply because they are ones we haven’t heard anyone else bring up in the day’s discussion.

What happens when we feel our ideas are overreaching is that we choose to neuter our contributions. You might have a suggestion that will improve efficiency in your workplace by 30% and instead only recommend in a meeting that your team alone adopts a milder version of the plan that would have a tenth of the impact. When talking to your partner about how to improve your finances, you may suggest moving to the suburbs to live in a cheaper rental instead of your real idea: To move to another state altogether with comparable salaries, but a fraction of the cost of living of your current location.

And here, the middle ground fails us. A small ask is safest, we think. It’s easier to start from someone else’s position and work towards yours than to put your idea first and defend it. Less of what you want is discussed, let alone adopted or pursued. Your contributions are watered down and ultimately forgettable.

Rejection strengthens us personally and professionally

Scientists have recently found that one of the most powerful learning tools is one most students (and teachers!) try to avoid: Getting things wrong. As stated in this Scientific American article, “Getting It Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn”, “…if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better[…]” This applies in many ways to pursuits other than learning.

By making bold requests and asks, we learn a lot more than we do compromising right out of the gate, especially if those requests and asks are rejected. A discussion on your idea that would make your office 30% more efficient might reveal to you how management evaluates and adopts policy changes that you didn’t know, opening the door for you to repackage your idea in a more palatable way. You might find that you were wrong — that the idea had been tried before and actually decreased efficiency by 8%. That tells you there’s data to examine that might show you a new perspective that you could consider for future asks.

Similarly, rejection for everyday things — asking your cable company to reduce your bill, for example, or petitioning your Home Owner’s Association for the right to plant a cherry tree in your yard — helps you identify your own priorities and seek opportunities you might not have known were there. Sure, the cable company you’ve used for 8 years can’t do better than $200/month — but their competitor has a new customer promotion for just $55/month. You’d never have known if you hadn’t been told that no, that was the lowest price in the area.

And let’s be honest. After being denied the affections of your longest lasting, deepest crush, how many of us really gave up on love? If anything, it makes the sting of the next rejection so much easier in comparison.

Okay, so how do I get comfortable with “no?”

One word: Exposure.

The best way to get comfortable with rejection is to put yourself in a position to be rejected. It’s scary, honestly. You might even find yourself dreading any interaction where you could be rejected. That’s okay. Embrace that dread — it’ll seem silly after hearing “no” a few times.

You don’t have to start by asking your CEO directly to listen to your ideas or by trying to get a free flight to China when you’ve only got enough airline miles for a flight to the next closest airport. Instead, I suggest you scale your requests. Make them silly or serious at first — things like, “I know you don’t usually give out samples without a purchase, but could I have a sample of this product to try before buying the full-sized version?” or “Hi fellow gym-goer! I don’t know how to do that exercise you were doing. Can you show me?”

Once you’re comfortable with your small asks, go bigger! “I want to join your gym, but the signing fee is too high. Can we waive that?” or “Hey boss, can I work from home once a week?” are some good mid-level asks. They’re nerve-wracking, sure, but they’re not exactly deal breakers.

Just keep scaling. There will always be some discomfort in big asks, but it won’t be paralyzing or anxiety-inducing anymore. And here’s the best part: you’ll also get to hear “yes” more often than you’d think. As a personal example, my car was rear-ended and a case of wine broke in my trunk. In addition to the standard repairs, I asked the insurance provider to also cover the costs of getting the smell and stains out of my trunk, to pay me back for the price of the wine that had been destroyed, and to give me a check for the diminished value of my vehicle following the repairs. I asked them to upgrade my rental vehicle and pay for the time I’d had to miss from work to deal with the fallout of the accident. Everything I asked of them, they agreed to. The value of what they opted to give me more than doubled as a result of these asks.

So I urge you to embrace “no.” Not just saying it, but hearing it too. Let “no” become a friendly word to you. It’s just one syllable; there’s no reason to let it hold you back.

Originally published at on April 4, 2017.