This is not a word that we are particularly good at using well.

And it’s not the one we want to hear, at least most of the time.

Of course there are the times when we skew a question because we actually want to get a ‘no’, as in something along the lines of ‘Are you going to yell at me now?’, but this is not about that version of it.

Most of us are not much good at saying ‘no’ when we most need to.

Version One

‘Would you like to have a coffee?’ asks a man or woman we’ve been talking to. This usually happens in a situation where there is no choice—classic examples being conferences, enforced office socialising, the long-postponed neighbourhood meeting about recycling. The common theme here is that we probably don’t want to be there.

Every cell in our body is screaming ‘no’, but we smile, make a vague excuse, the ‘that sounds nice, but…’ kind, and then we think it’s over.

We think he or she will move on, quietly we hope, but we realise that they are waiting for a time and date. Somehow the vague excuse has been re-interpreted as a ‘yes’.

We now have about a second to choose whether we are going to find a good way to be less vague about our excuse (is there ever a good way?), or we go along with it, working on the basis of, ‘oh, it’s only about an hour of my life, how can it hurt?’

Is any of that at all familiar?

Version Two

We have been standing in the doorway of a room full of people. Actually we have probably been longing to be invisible because this is uncomfortable for us. That is another understatement—this is painful, both physically and mentally.  More than almost anything else, this is not something that we ever want to be doing, but we felt we had to test ourselves. We agreed to go, even though the people, the committee, organisation, or whoever it is that asked us, has no idea of the kind of disabling anxiety that crowds of people induces in us.

We are confronted by a wall of noise, a heaving mass of fear-inducing people, and every instinct tells us to flee, to go and find a quiet, dark place where we can curl up and hide. There may only seem be a few people in the room to someone else, but to us this is terrifying.

And then someone smiles at us—a lifeline, a welcome. We edge towards them, tentatively, and they are still smiling. We override the voices screaming at us to leave, and we approach.

We ask a question, horrified by how stupid it sounds, even as we ask.

But they reply, still smiling.

They are speaking to us, and it does not seem so bad. We know we are sweating but they don’t seem to have noticed, and even if they have, they are being kind enough not to show it.

We relax a little.

A while later we are still talking. For the first time for a long time we feel something that to us is so unfamiliar that we almost miss it.

Is it a tiny flicker of confidence?

Can we, could we, do we dare?

How bad will it be if they say ‘no’?

Maybe with this new, unfamiliar chink of courage the idea of ‘no’ doesn’t seem so bad. If they say ‘no’ it could be that they are just busy, or going on somewhere else.

That wouldn’t be so bad would it?

They say ‘yes’.

We can’t quite believe it.

And now a whole new arena of anxiety opens up, fraught with every social agony that has ever eaten into our sleepless nights.

Every ‘what if?’ rears its ugly, leering head, taunting us with the possibility of failure.

We are frozen to the spot by panic.

Why we don’t do it well

Let’s go back to the beginning, and to our reasons for being bad at saying ‘no’ in ways that are honest and thoughtful.

This is about turning down a situation rather than rejecting the person, this person in front of us, who seems so nervous.

We are designed by evolution to leverage situations that make us feel superior. Being asked to do something that we don’t really want to do plays into this, as in the idea that we are superior because we are being asked, and we don’t want to go. What can follow is a sense that this means we are desirable, and so, whether we mean to or not, we think of the other person as being less desirable than we are.

  1. Do not trust this sliding scale of desirability because it works on a purely evolutionary basis. The person that evolution thinks you should breed with may be good for a one-night stand with a higher chance of impregnation, but this primal arousal is a very poor indicator of whether the other person is actually someone you would want to spend time with, outside of the rutting season.
  2. We don’t want to offend or hurt people by saying ‘no’, or that is what we tell ourselves. Actually the truth is usually closer to the idea that we do not want to say ‘no’ because we might then be judged as not a likeable, or indeed desirable person.
  3. We simply don’t know how to say ‘no’, for any number of reasons that would require a bucketful of posts around confidence, self-esteem, early damage, the list goes on… (plenty of earlier posts on all of the above.)

Is there a better way to do this?

Let’s take both points of view.

First: the person who was asked for coffee, and who failed to say ‘no’.

  1. When in this sort of situation, an emotional subtlety is to really look at the person who is asking. What about considering about how hard it might have been for them to ask the question about having coffee?
  2. If we find it difficult to say ‘no’, why is this? How honest can we be with ourselves about why we don’t want to say ‘no’? Again the bucketful of possible reasons comes into play.
  3. Do we become irritated in these sorts of situations and simply find it easier to say ‘yes’ because trying to find a polite and honest way of saying ‘no’ seems too hard.
  4. Did we just never learn to say ‘no’ for yet another bucket load of reasons?
  5. Do we just need to start learning to say ‘no’? And if so, should we start practicing. Now.

Second: the person who asked the question.

  1. When summoning up the courage to ask this sort of question do we really look at the person we are about to ask, or is the moment too nerve-wracking to be able to actually look up?
  2. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by being unrealistic in asking someone who is probably going to say ‘no’?
  3. And if so, is this because there is a part of us that wants to get a ‘no’ because this plays into our sense of ourselves as being someone who just gets turned down by everyone, who will never find it easy to make friends, who is destined to be alone.
  4. If we do have this doomed sense that we will always be alone do we know where this stems from? How well do we understand our own patterns of negative thinking? (And this is going to be the next blog posting…)

So this is what it comes down to two questions: asking ourselves why we can’t say ‘no’ when we should, and also asking ourselves why we ask for something when we know the answer is going to be ‘no’. And there is nothing wrong with that second one, as in asking, even against the odds. Sometimes people are surprising and say ‘yes’ when we assumed they were going to say ‘no’. Sometimes they say ‘yes’ because they are simply impressed that we have had the balls to ask. And sometimes they say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’, and so back we go to the beginning.

In short, we have to take responsibility for the misunderstandings caused by saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. And we have to be frank with ourselves about how much we will be affected by a ‘no’ in reply to a question.

‘No’ is not a rejection of who we are. It is a rejection of one question.

‘Yes’ is easier to say than ‘no’ and so we keep finding ourselves in these messes that we then have to dig ourselves out of, usually feeling increasingly resentful as we do.

This is beginning to go around in circles when much of this comes down to one thing, where this began—most of us need to practice saying ‘no’ to others, and perhaps more importantly, to ourselves.