No is perhaps the most feared – and misunderstood word in communication. The reason its feared, is its viewed as rejection, and a judgment on your advances being incorrect or inappropriate.
So great is this fear, that people often accede with a half-hearted ‘yes’ than issue a ‘no’ lest the receiver of the no’s feelings be hurt. What happens immediately from this yes, is that it is not truthful, and hence does not really have the backing of the issuer behind me.
Consider this circumstance in the corporate environment: your boss gives you a demanding assignment in an overly aggressive timeline. You don’t think you can do it reasonably within that timeline, but you don’t want to sound incompetent so you say yes. Not a yes with reservations, not a yes with caveats, but a yes. The receiver of that yes imagines you can finish the task, and leaves you to it. Or your boss suggests a methodology that you don’t think will work, but since you can’t challenge your boss with misgivings due to a difference in your Power Distance Index (PDI), you say yes.
Either way, you will end up doing one of two things: over promise and under deliver (I have personally been guilty of this), leading to not delivering on time, compromising your image, or cut corners around quality, again, compromising your professional image. A yes didn’t help you. Or your heart won’t be in it. And you are doing the motions of a task, without quite doing the task.
I don’t trust a person’s yes if no doesn’t exist for them. If you are incapable of saying no, your yes isn’t a yes. It’s a default yes, its where you live, and you know no other world. Your dissent lives inside you, and you pretend to the world that you are with a plan, when you are not. This marks as deception. First to yourself, then to your work and interpersonal relationships.
Quite a few people I counsel have a terrible time saying no. Their body starts shaking from the prospect of saying no. When prompted, a lot of us recite a long list of people they can’t say no to: their boss, their husband, elders in their family. This builds resentment because you start doing things you don’t wish to. Tasks that you don’t agree with, or are even dangerous or hurtful.
What deference cost an airline
Malcolm Gladwell in his outstanding book Outliers provides an excellent example of a study on airline investigations when these researchers came upon a curious pattern: they found that Korean Air had a higher incidence of crashes in the 1990s compared to other airlines. A detailed investigation revealed that one of the significant causes was the Power Distance Index (PDI). The the power differential between the senior pilot and the junior pilot was so great that when the junior pilot, who was not flying the plane, pointed out a hazard (like there was ice on the wings), the senior pilot would deride him, asking if he knew more than the senior. This has been recorded on the black boxes of planes that went down. The junior tried to communicate a no – tried to tell the senior pilot not to take off because there was danger – and the senior pilot did not listen. And the junior pilot shut up. At the expense of 228 souls on board, including the two pilots.
Consider the no of your mother – when you run onto the street as a child, your mother says no. If you try and counter, with arguments, screaming, even tantrums such as throwing yourself upon the ground and making a royal scene, your mother says no. Even if she has to take you by the collar and heft you away.
The investigators around the Korean air crashes prescribed the following procedure in delivering a no – the pilot that is not flying the plane, will communicate perceived hazards once verbally, and if rejected, will repeat his warning once. Thereupon the supporting pilot has the authorization to physically take control of the plane away from the flying pilot.
Do you say no when you disagree? Do you stand your ground if you firmly believe the suggested procedure should not be followed? Conversely, if the no is not accepted properly in a firm, employees feel less valued, stop applying themselves, and stop contributing and pulling their weight as they ought to.
A no, given and received properly, is immensely empowering – both to the issuer of the no and the receiver of the no. A no is one of the most powerful tools in a negotiation toolbox.
A no is not the stop or the end. It is the beginning of a negotiation – for involved parties to understand each other better, respect each other’s wishes, and come to a solution that makes everyone happy. Its not my way or the highway – although sometimes it has to be – but in most circumstances a no is the beginning of a very fruitful and rewarding discussion.
A no provides choice. It’s a portal to better ways – if this doesn’t work, what does? What do you suggest? A successful corporation takes careful note of its counsel. When an employee says no in interpersonal relationships, she may be drawing a boundary around sexual harassment. You ignore a no at your own peril.
The person who is giving a no is saying – you are approaching a boundary or have crossed a boundary. This boundary can be anything from the mission of your company of efficiency or goodwill, or it could be a boundary of propriety. This person is giving you an opportunity to do things better. There are consequences if that no is not honored. Corporations pay for not respecting a no in surprisingly myriad of ways: with high employee turnover, lower productivity, increased production costs, even litigation in terms of sexual harassment.
Volkwagen: the case of the missing no
Consider the case of Volkswagen – the CEO of the firm, the engineers, linesmen, the entire production team, went against the primary stated mission of Volkswagen in cheating in the diesel emissions test – that of safety. Volkswagen had an obligation to its customers, to its shareholders. I am sure there must have been at least one employee in the entire firm who didn’t agree with this cheating policy. But they didn’t speak up. In addition to a loss of credibility, it cost jobs, the reputation of the firm, and close to a 40% loss in value of market share, impacting the shareholders, never mind the resonating impact on the environment and global air quality. For Volkwagen, a no was missing that could have saved its life.
On the personal front, a no is a path to happiness. Knowing that you have a choice –for what is freedom or democracy but the ability to make a choice? Saying no is honoring your own self. And everyone who truly cares for you will honor that no, and will work with you in finding a solution that makes you happy.
In terms of somatic therapy, I just did a session with a client who’d been through Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). This woman was morbidly afraid of saying no. My obseration during the session was that she would go through tremendous pain, and will not let on that she was suffering. It didn’t even register on her face! I suspected she was asked, as a child, to lie still, and not make a fuss while she went through excruciating pain. My somatic reading of her was she was ‘frozen’ in not allowing herself to react, acknowledge pain, or take up space. She had also been excessively sexually active, which is also a symptom of CSA. Since her first encounter with a man at such a young age was sexual, she grew up to assume that that’s all that men wanted from her. During the session, when I spoke to her about saying no, she just kept weeping silently.
In addressing her frozen state somatically, I physically crushed her rib cage and lungs. And right there – you should have seen how her lungs inflated –for the first time in decades. She lay there, and her rib cage grew and grew and grew to such a height, I was amazed. She was breathing again.
Subsequent to one session with her, where I gave her permission to, and encouraged her to say no, the results were startling. She came back and reported that she had been with a man, and did something she had never done before. She said no to him. She said, I like hanging out with you, but I do not wish to engage sexually. I am not in the space to do so. And his response, I asked? ‘He said, of course that is perfectly fine. I honor your no, in fact, if you need help, and are afraid of crossing your boundaries, I will keep your boundaries for you, and not let you cross them.’ And this little girl knew for the first time what the honor of a perfect gentleman looks like. How did you feel about it, I asked? Its weird, she said. It feels weird to say no. Of course, it’s a new muscle. But I was proud of myself too. And there was joy.
I am always grateful when someone says no to me. The easiest thing in the world is to not say anything, or simply walk away. The person standing before me and saying no is really saying, ‘I care so much for you, I am risking confrontation and hurting your feelings to tell you you are about to do something I don’t agree with, likely will harm you, me, or both. I want you in my life, and I want trust between us.’ When we say no, we give ourselves and others the permission to follow joy, and actualize our personal and professional missions.
Throughout history, mankind’s ability to say no, which usually started from a single individual’s will to say no, has changed the course of our nation’s lives. Gandhi said no. Malcolm X said no. Rosa Parks said no. Even mother Theresa’s mission of charity began with her refusing the accept the squalor of medicine conditions available to the poor. A no is a powerful tool against oppression, injustice, or, plain stupidity.
Do yourself a favor, give yourself permission to say no.