The following is an excerpt from a chapter out of my book, The Best Advice So Far, entitled “Saying No”:
I used to have a hard time saying no to people. It didn’t matter how many plates I had spinning at the time, if someone held another plate out and asked, “Gee, could you spin my plate, too?” I felt obliged to spin it along with the others. When I was younger, I think I told myself that saying yes was the same thing as being nice. Nice people say yes. Mean people say no. People like nice people. I like people to like me.
At some point along the way, however, I began to realize that I often had an awful lot of anxiety for such a “nice” person . Saying yes often made me actually feel mean. Resentful. Bitter. Call it what you will, I wasn’t happy, just worn out.
It was not easy to break my addiction to yes. But I slowly and surely began to add “no” to my vocabulary. The problem was that I tried my best to make no sound like yes, or at least feel like yes. I did this by way of explaining to a painful degree exactly why I was saying no. I would explain in detail my schedule of every other obligation, broken down into days and hours. I would compliment and affirm that I liked the person who was holding out the current plate, and assure them that, under other circumstances, I would, of course, gladly spin theirs.
I would tell them how much I hated saying no, and how it had been a life-long struggle, and how my high school English teacher had tried to force me say yes to a recitation in a poetry competition in which I was already entered in ten other events, and how I was needing to say no sometimes now for my own well-being.
In my mind, all of this explanation somehow tricked people into feeling like I was a yes kind of guy, even when I was saying no. In my mind, people cared deeply to hear all the details of my no. In my mind, they walked away probably even glad I had said no, because they felt they now knew me better for it. In my mind, I was keeping the universe in balance.
In reality, I was still completely stressed out after saying no…
The advice in that chapter was a life saver for me. And many others have expressed the same sentiments since. But here in this blog post, I want to talk about another facet of saying no that was not covered in the book, and which I’m realizing is overlooked by most people.
No is nice.
As I said in the beginning of my chapter on “Saying No,” I used to think that yes was nice and no was mean. I then moved to thinking that no was necessary. But no can actually be the nicest thing you say to someone. Let me explain.
By way of example, I love to collaborate with creative people. Creating by myself is terrific. But there are just some forms of creative venture that feel better and go further when you have other people involved who are equally invested and capable. They bring their own perspective and skills to a project, which can elevate it and take it in a direction that you yourself may never have stumbled upon.
I say I love to collaborate. But the truth is, I don’t do it often.
Now, I try to do it fairly often. I will get talking with someone and the topic of our shared creative passion will come up. Somewhere along the line in that conversation, my wheels begin to turn in a new direction and I start seeing the possibilities that this meeting of the minds could have if jointly applied. So I’ll say, “Hey, would you like to collaborate on something together? I could do this and you could do that, and we could really come up with something great! What do you think?”
This is most often met with an enthusiastic “YES! Great! Let’s do it!”
Being me, I can’t sleep. I’m too excited. So I get right to work, burning the midnight oil, pouring myself out into my part of the collaboration. I don’t want to hold things back!
Soon, I have something — something that feels strong and alive! I present it to my new collaboration partner, and they exclaim its virtues and promise to get to work.
A week passes. And then two. Then a month. No word.
I’ll check in and see if there is anything else I can do. Are they getting anywhere? Would it be better to meet live? Are they feeling inspired by the part I offered, or would they rather trash it and start things off themselves?
Here, explanations for the delay are proffered. Promises are made. But communication wanes and enthusiasm fizzles.
It can get a guy down, I tell you.
Let’s go back to that first meeting, when the idea of a collaboration was introduced. The “YES!” from the other person felt “nice” at the time. But was it, considering that it was really a no masquerading as a yes?
If you, like me, struggle with saying no, consider that, by politely declining, you may actually be doing the nicest thing.
Your no allows the other person to have realistic expectations.
Your no allows them to continue their pursuit for someone else who may be a legitimate yes, rather than merely waiting and hoping and losing time.
Your no allows communication between the two of you to continue unencumbered, without the awkwardness or avoidance that comes with having said yes when you really meant no.
No is not mean.
No is not even merely necessary.
No is nice.