I believe the benefits and importance of saying “No” are widely underappreciated. In fact, saying “No” often is much maligned – like it’s a bad thing.
Saying “No” can actually be a healthy, empowering act, not only for yourself but for others. I’m not talking about the obvious No’s, like saying No to dessert, drugs, or too much alcohol or shopping. I’m talking about when someone asks you to do something that is not in either your or their best interest in the long run. Sometimes those requests are not even verbal, and we agree to them without conscious thought, much less conversation.
There is often much pressure to say “Yes”, including those habits we’ve adopted without thought. For example, it is my habit to go to the kitchen first thing in the morning and start picking up and cleaning up. There’s food, dirty dishes, trash and crumbs on the counter and stove top, and I relax with the newspaper better when the kitchen is clean. I have been in this habit for probably decades as I can’t really remember when I started doing it. What is the tacit agreement here? That my family can leave a mess each night with their midnight snacks/meals/desserts and that I will clean up after them? Apparently so!
Why haven’t I said “No” to this? I will likely get some pushback from saying “No” either immediately or later, when they forget or fall back into old habits. I might argue that I’m picking my fights. In other words, I have tacitly agreed to this arrangement because it’s easier than asking them to change and then enforcing the new behavior.
This is an agreement I can live with and have chosen to do so. For now. But some other agreements may not be so obviously benign. If my son were to forget his homework repeatedly and I have to drop everything to bring his assignments to school, then maybe I’m removing his incentive to bring his own homework by protecting him from the natural consequences of his behavior. If my husband is supposed to call the plumber, but then forgets or gets too busy, then maybe I’m encouraging him to avoid responsibility at home if I repeatedly take care of such tasks for him. If I fail to say something when my girlfriend keeps interrupting me or arrives 30 minutes late again, then maybe I’m telling her that her behavior is acceptable to me. If I put one more thing on my over-loaded plate at work, even if I know I can’t do a good job because I’m overcommitted, then maybe I’m telling my boss it’s OK to have unrealistic expectations of me.
If I do manage to say “No” and stand my ground and insist that others treat me with consideration and fairness, then I should also consider the unanticipated consequences of that choice too. I may say “No” then feel guilty about asking for what I need, even if I’m standing up for myself for the first time on an issue. Perhaps when I say “No”, if I use in a whiny, defensive, or judgmental tone, then participate in a fight or an argument, then I’m also undermining my cause by putting others on the defensive for what is an otherwise reasonable request or decision.
The benefit of No has been most apparent to me when it comes to parenting. We have parented with an assumption that any behavior that we accepted or tolerated when the kids were little was going to be a reality that we would have to live with the rest of our lives. This assumption has largely proven true. Though teaching manners and civilized behavior was tiring and frustrating to consistently enforce in the beginning, those discipline and courtesy problems at some point became almost non-existent.
However, there were exceptions to this rule. Some behaviors were resistant to change, encouragement and/or punishment. We struggled against them for years with little progress, but when we took a step back for a fresh perspective and assessment, we learned there were medical issues involved in that were the root of the behavioral issues. In this case, neither giving in, giving up nor punishing were effective. We needed to listen, learn and investigate. Then support.
I hope the parenting example illustrates that I am not advocating that we all start saying “No” to anything and everything because we now feel empowered to do so. Instead, I suggest that we stay attuned to our feelings, especially that nagging but quiet inner voice, to gauge to whether we’re being true to ourselves and our values, of if we’re just taking the path of least resistance. I suggest that we do not shrink from having difficult conversations with family or co-workers, but we approach them with kindness, firmness, empathy, and confidence as we advocate for what we need or what we believe is the right thing to do. I suggest we also listen with an open mind for what they need and want, and approach the conversation with an aim to understand and compromise.
I suggest we also consider changing our own behavior: if I stop doing the thing that isn’t working, then others will have to change their behavior in response. For example, if I don’t want to clean the kitchen anymore, I can simply stop cleaning the kitchen and live with the consequences. One possible consequence is that someone else may choose to step up to help with this chore.
Maybe I’ll go read the newspaper now….