How often do you say NO?

I ask because I find that I say it a little more frequently than a lot of folks I know and I still don’t say but half the time I think it. And when I do say it, it’s usually work. Like I have to put that NO through a series of tests to be sure that what I want to say is, in fact, NO… Let me give an example.

slide1I play music with some friends and we had an acquaintance come to a rehearsal to feel out the possibilities of playing together. He’s a very good musician. As we played, I liked what I heard him adding to the songs we’ve been playing and I could imagine a richer more full sound developing as we grew to know each other better. Towards the end of our available time, however, we decided to stop playing and talk about what moving forward would look like. As he talked, I felt myself closing up like fan. I sensed a mismatch on so many levels that I found it hard to even engage in the conversation. I felt the shift from listening to waiting for it to be over. So did I wait for a pause and say I wasn’t really interested; thanks, but it doesn’t really feel like a fit to me? No, I did not.

I blamed my decreasing interest on being tired, on needing to get home, on not really wanting to deal with all of this right now, and on… one of my favorites… needing to process what was being said before I could really respond. What a load of crap. I didn’t need any time. I knew I wasn’t happy with what was going on. I knew I wasn’t interested in that situation. So what happened? Why didn’t I just come out with that No when I had the chance?

If I had really felt a YES, I would have been excited, been interested in the conversation, wanted to talk about next steps, I wouldn’t have questioned my yes or felt the need to process it, double check it, feel into the realness of my YES. I would have just said it. Why? Because YES is something everybody likes to hear. YES rarely disappoints. YES, in my old way of doing things, makes you agreeable, capable, maybe even interesting. So what does that leave for the woman who says NO?

slide2In the old way, the woman who says NO is a party pooper, selfish, careless with other people’s feelings… there’s probably more in there, but I don’t even like to give it air that old story about NO. I could feel the NO. I could feel it in my gut and I could feel it as the energy drained out of my and practically formed a puddle on the floor. I KNEW it was no. And yet, I took the coward’s way out and said I needed to think about it.

So what did that look like? Spreadsheet? Pro Con list? A journal entry about it to sort out how I felt? Nope, none of that. I just waited. I waited to hear anything from my colleagues that showed me that it wasn’t just me. I waited for the smallest sign that someone else wasn’t into it. And I worried. I worried that I wouldn’t get those signs and that I would either have to say NO alone or say yes and regret it as I was sure I would. I sent out a couple of short flares indicating I wasn’t thrilled.

Then the information started to flow. And over the next several days everyone showed their hand that said, more or less, NO. I wonder how they got there. I wonder if they knew right away and held back to “think about it” too. I wonder if they were second-guessing themselves as much as I was. I wonder what would have been different if I had just said: NO.

It’s funny, I didn’t think I had this problem any more, but I’ve realized it goes deeper than I knew and when the stakes are high, when the context is important, when the other people involved are close in my heart, that old stuff emerges and clouds the water, makes me doubt myself, makes me do all of these gymnastics to get to where I knew I was all along. The only thing gained from all of that mental effort was a headache and the need for a nap. I think it just takes practice, all this knowing and NO-ing. And it takes practice in all of those contexts, all of those heart spaces, in all of the various corners of our lives.

slide3What’s the payoff for really getting good at saying no? Every no limits the likelihood of you being in a room you don’t want to be in, the likelihood that you’ll spend time doing something you don’t want to do, and the likelihood that you’ll be worrying about things that weren’t meant for you to begin with. Saying no frees you for all the yes you can muster when all the right things are right there in front of you. Saying no clears your path of baggage and debris. Saying no is your right and maybe even a duty. I’m getting better at it. Really, I am. How’s your NO?



  1. In your 3rd paragraph you outline positive feelings about the person’s adding to your music. Later as you all talked, many levels of negative feelings. You seemed to expect yourself to say a definitive NO based on that talk, and your many levels of feelings. I don’t think that is fair to you or them. The situation was complex; there actually was a lot for you to process and think thru; that takes time to be fair to all concerned. Saying NO when you’re really ready I think is admirable. Not being pushed into it for what, expediency? And you probably had your social face on and couldn’t jump tracks fast enough to think everything thru! These are just a few reactions. There are,as you noted, many levels for you.

    1. I hear you, and agree that it was complex, but I KNEW. I really did. It is okay to wait, and to allow myself that, but I would have saved myself some angst if I had just given up the ghost when I knew.

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