On hearing and saying "no"


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
16 August 2018

Previously, I’ve written about Nonviolent Communication and Saying Please. When we do our best to make a request (ensuring it doesn’t sound like a demand) and still receive a “No”, it can be confusing and demoralising. Likewise, saying “Yes” to things which don’t serve our true interests ultimately saps our precious time and energy.

So what do we do when we receive a “No”? And how do we constructively say “No” in a way that strengthens our relationships and contributes to everyone having their needs met?

Hearing the need behind the “No”

In our culture which celebrates conflict, competition, and absolutism in “rightness” and “wrongness”, a “No” can feel like an attack: a power move in a zero-sum game. Yet, if we listen with honesty (and our giraffe ears), an honest “No” can be a tremendous gift. It gives us a deeper look into the needs of the giver and helps us to understand how those needs would’t be served if they said “Yes”.

Staying present with the “No” and attempting to empathise instead of retreating into a place of hurt or resentment allows us to empathise with them and, perhaps, come up with a strategy for meeting their needs in a way that also meets our needs. And if the need isn’t clear to us, we can ask!

Imagine that I had a need for some company and invited a friend to join me for dinner but he declined. If I can dig deeper and understand that my friend is too tired tonight and needs rest, I could propose lunch instead, or reschedule for another evening. If he has a need to save money, I could offer to host the meal at my home instead of going out… in either case, once I understand the need behind the “No” I am less likely to feel “hurt” by the apparent rejection and secondly, we can develop a strategy for meeting both my friend’s need and my own.

Saying “No”

For many people, the only thing worse than hearing “No” is saying it, themselves. Once you understand that some requests can’t be accommodated because of underlying needs, you can practice explaining the need of yours that prevents you from saying “Yes”. Try saying “I hear your need for X and I would love to say ‘Yes’. I also have a need for Y which keeps me from agreeing to this right now.”

The same holds true in a professional context, if I know what a colleague’s ambitions are (perhaps by reading his or her OKRs), I am more likely to know whether my request will be met with agreement or push-back. Likewise, if my colleagues know what I’m trying to accomplish and what I need, they can frame their requests to help meet both our needs.

Thus, by learning to share your own needs and acknowledging the needs of others rather than stopping with a simple “No”, you can move beyond any feelings of guilt towards a language of understanding and meeting everyone’s needs.

Thanks for reading! I'm always looking to raise my game and meet like-minded people so if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions, please contact me.