Blame it on Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking: many of us Americans, on several levels, don’t understand the function of the word no. In Psychology Today, Judith Sills, PhD puts it plainly: “It’s likely that we are unaware of the surge of strength we draw from no because, in part, it is easily confused with negativity. Either can involve a turning away, a shake of the head, or a firm refusal.”
Or maybe They Might Be Giants, the elder statesmen of geek pop, said it best on the title track to their 2004 children’s album, No! — “No is no, / No is always no, / If they say no, / It means a thousand times no … Finger pointing, eyebrows low, / Mouth in the shape of the letter O.” Maybe no just rekindles memories of that one toy you really wanted but were refused.
Whatever the hangup, our collective ire towards saying no has been both contested and further cemented by the rise of the pseudo-scientific thinkpiece. For example: Panache Desai wrote in The Huffington Post’s Healthy Living section: “Yes is the essence of openness, freedom, and Divine love. Once you begin triumphantly saying yes, life flows, opportunities arise, and people appear that elevate your course and frequency forever.” But then, in Huff Po’s Financial Education sector, Stephanie Wagner wrote that “no actually means ‘yes’ to something else,” writing that as a woman in business, “yes” was her “knee-jerk reaction to every query” — whereas Desai, ironically, purports that “When faced with a proposition or question, no is often our knee-jerk response.” In Forbes, Molly Cain acts as middleman: “It could be you don’t need to entirely quit saying yes. You may just need to analyze when you’re saying yes and what you’re trading for it.” Which all adds up to a hell of a lot of talk over something that seems simple.
The proper no is a polite no, which is three things: a definitive answer, a summary of the reasons for it, and a suggestion for alternatives.
What’s most important is that you understand the word’s basic function, and rather than shy away from it, let its purpose guide the way you use it. For its definition we return to Psychology Today: No, Sills writes, “implicitly acknowledges personal responsibility… It says that while each of us interacts with others, and loves, respects, and values those relationships, we do not and cannot allow ourselves always to be influenced by them. The strength we draw from saying no is that it underscores this hard truth of maturity: The buck stops here.”
Where do the complications arise? Patricia Fitzpatrick, founder of the Etiquette School of New York, supposes that “Most people don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Or they don’t have a good friendship — those would be two reasons.” For those who have trouble saying no — whether for fear of stepping on toes, or for grand spiritual universe-hugging reasons, a primer is in order. Same goes for those who have too little trouble saying no, with little regard for the person they’re saying it to. The proper no is a polite no, which is three things: a definitive answer, a summary of the reasons for it, and a suggestion for alternatives.
Simple, right? But just to make doubly sure you don’t overthink it, we asked Fitzpatrick to give some pointers on politely saying no in a handful of situations.
1Saying no in the workplace. If a coworker asks you a favor, “and they have given you a favor,” Fitzpatrick says, “then you have to reciprocate.” Tit for tat, in other words, and the same goes for those below rank. If that person hasn’t done you any favors — perhaps they’re someone who takes advantage of other people not being able to say no — then reason follows: “I would say to those people that, you know, it’s been all one-sided, you helped them, and they have not helped you.” In this situation, your reason for saying no is your limited time, resources and energy, which in the moment appear to be at risk of further monopolization.
The Rule of Threes
If someone isn’t taking no for an answer, use the rule of threes. If you give three nos in business, take actions such as seeking a superior. After three nos with friends, family or suitors, be blunt or initiate the Slow Fade. God speed.
Fitzpatrick sums up her overall attitude towards no, in the workplace and beyond, via Warren Buffet: “He says you’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t [do that] unless you say no. You can’t let other people set your agenda in life.” As for how that relates to the office, she refers to The Power of the Positive No: “[It says] we cannot say yes to everything, even though it opens us up to opportunities… There are so many [opportunities] that we have to be selective. So you have to assert yourself, and decide what we say yes to, if it’s for the greater good.” Sussing out what “the greater good” is with that boss, colleague or subordinate is what distinguishes cooperation from rejection. Real positive thinking, in other words.
2Saying no to friends and family. It all comes back to childhood. “What I teach my children in classes,” Fitzpatrick says, “is when you’re part of the family, we don’t all get to do what you want to do all the time.” We can all probably think back to being told that at some point as a kid. Hindsight should allow you to reason what you couldn’t back then: that that applies to everyone in the family, and to all situations (i.e. not just family trips). There comes a point where your older or younger sibling status ceases to carry weight and your parents can’t get a free pass simply because they raised you. When and where that point arrives varies case by case, but when it does arrive, the process of saying no is essentially the same as dealing with your coworkers (though you probably wouldn’t use a carefully worded memo). Rather than defaulting to your younger self, assert those prior engagements, take past favors into account and suggest alternatives. When it comes to engagements or visits, it’s a better option than a begrudging yes. “If you go with a bad attitude,” Fitzpatrick reminds us, “you ruin it for everyone.” Ultimately, bear in mind that “You’re saying yes to something that you need to do more than what they want you to do.”
3Rejecting a date. Uninterested in a first or second date? Don’t let chivalry die in one fell swipe to the left. Fitzpatrick likens dating to sales: “The worst possible answer you can get in sales is ‘maybe.’” Thus, in her “How to Be a Gentleman” course, Fitzpatrick teaches that “If you take a girl out (or it could be reversed), and you have a good time, but you don’t want to see her again, you say, ‘I really enjoyed getting to know you, but I believe we’re too different’ — whatever you say to her, you let her know, rather than have her wait by the phone hoping for that phone call. If you can say it nicely, it’s really doing the person a favor.” In that sense, if no is the answer for you, then remember that anything other than that will be a waste of both your time.
4Saying no through technology. To start, you’re not using voicemail enough. “People break up through text now. It’s unbelievable. I think it might be better to leave a voicemail, but then you might not get the person,” Fitzpatrick says. “Most people do not leave voicemails, and over 60 percent of phone calls go to voicemail.” Her reasoning: tone of voice is of paramount importance in any rejection situation, and that factor is absent in text.
To that end, emojis are fine, but not in business. Ignore whatever you read about grown men using them. “I am not a big fan of them myself,” Fitzpatrick says, “but that’s primarily because I know about business — and certainly in business, I think they should never be used. But maybe with certain friends. Grown men can use emoticons.” So it’s settled, then.
As for when you can’t use them: choose your words wisely. Everything is open to interpretation — maybe even have a thesaurus handy. Especially, in Fitzpatrick’s opinion, because “anything that’s in writing can be sent to everybody else.” If you say it like a jerk, the world can know. All the more motivation to practice.