Quiet Power: “No” is a Complete Sentence

“Would you like a million dollars?”
“No.”

“Would you like a new car?”
“No.”

“Would you like to go on a paid vacation?”
“No.”

While saying “No” in reply to these questions might seem ludicrous, it’s a transformative learning experience for many participants in the Mindful Communication day-long trainings I conduct. This seemingly innocuous exercise that I’ve used over the years, helps individuals assess how difficult it can be to say “No.” Participants regularly comment that it feels awkward, uncomfortable, and inappropriate to only be allowed to say “No” for the thirty seconds the exercise lasts. Moreover, they want to apologize and somehow buttress the impact of their “No.” One participant summed it up by saying: “it’s like we’re not allowed to just say ‘No’ without a long rationale, reason, or full blown out excuse. Why is that?”

Why is that?

Why is it so difficult to just say “No?” At the societal level, women and girls are encouraged through media depictions, work place attitudes, classroom dynamics, and traditional family roles to conform to limiting ideals of what it means to be female—nurturing, dependent, weak, loving, emotional, and pretty, to name a few. At the individual level, women worry what others think of them, fear taking risks and hold themselves back—negatively impacting their self-esteem. Saying a strong and assertive “No” breaks through that pre-fabricated societal mold and can make others and ourselves uncomfortable. As a result, women prefer to keep the peace and not rock the boat.

At the end of this exercise, I give women permission to just say “No.” Yet, more novel to them was that “No” can be a complete sentence. Participants remark how surprising just one word can shift how they feel about themselves—but it is more than just one word. They are shifting their perceptions of themselves. They are beginning to believe that they are worth saying “No.” They feel they have a right to speak up for themselves and that they matter.

For myself, not saying “No” helped me to believe I could keep being liked, appreciated, and approved of. And then, when I did have the courage to say “No”, I’d pendulum swing to the far opposite side and seem to shout it from the rooftops, negating all other voices in the room. We have to find our own balance between these extremes.

One way to do this is Quiet Power—be authentic in speaking up for yourself. Sometimes that calls on you to put your foot down and say “No.”

In some situations, “No” might be the best answer, and it can be a complete sentence. If you’re struggling to say “No”, here are three tips to get you started:

  1. Say “No” in low stakes situations: Prepare a few of your friends and family members that you will be saying “No” more frequently over a 3-day period and practice with these safe people just saying “No” with these safe people.
  2. Repeat if necessary: Sometimes people don’t hear or want to hear the “No” especially if you don’t normally say it. You might have to repeat it a second time. By the third time, you might also want to raise the volume of your voice and add: “I’ve said ‘No’ twice, I cannot do what you are asking. Please respect that.” It is also okay after the second or third time to use your feet and end the conversation by leaving.
  3. Be Brief: If you want to explain your “No”, you can succinctly state why you have to refuse, but you don’t have to justify why. For example, if someone asks you to help them with a last minute project at work, but you are too busy, all you need to say is: “No, I’m not able to help you right now.” You don’t have to detail all the reasons why.

Saying “No” is setting a boundary for yourself to have your needs respected. Most people will respect that boundary and both sides will feel good about the interaction. However, for the few that don’t respect your “No”, realize this is their issue and you still have a right to say “No” regardless of what others may think.