Saying “no” to anyone, about anything, tends to be challenging. We know how uncomfortable it is to hear the “no” we would say. We want to avoid that discomfort and the consequences that might come our way for being “exposed” in our unwillingness. Many of us genuinely wish to be always caring and available, and find it strenuous to face a situation in which, for whatever reason, we don’t find the willingness or ability to say “yes” to what is being asked of us. In some cultures, or for certain groups of people, it is entirely unacceptable to say “no,” which only makes things more complex.
These challenges arise even in the most ordinary exchanges, or in our most trusted relationships, and are orders of magnitude more challenging when the relationship has power differences built into it. I plan to come back to the added complexity of how power and “no” interact. For now, I want to look at the “easier” piece, navigating a “no” in a relationship of equals, in a way that allows us to retain trust and a spirit of collaboration.
What Makes “No” So Challenging?
Every time anyone makes a request, two things operate simultaneously. One is the specifics of what is being asked for – the dishes, the report, the favor, or whatever it is. The other is the secret question that hovers over the request, known by both without being spoken or acknowledged, mostly without awareness: “Do I matter?” When the answer is “no,” not only is the specific need that led to the request not going to be attended to. In addition to that the person making the request more often than not will take the “no” to mean that the person saying “no” doesn’t care, or doesn’t care enough to say “yes.”
What this means, if we want to say “no” to someone, is that we need to find a way to subvert this fundamental dance. We can, instead, aim for a way to say “no” to the specific request while continuing to affirm that we care about the person making the request and about what’s important to them.