No: A Cultural Conundrum
I read a few studies recently that analyzed how different cultures view and use the word “No.” Reading these research papers emphasized the fact that we don’t all see it the same way, and we don’t all value a straight-up, honest “No.”
For example, one study referred to a specific culture in which people place a very high value on harmony. They deem it extremely rude to disagree with a person to their face. It’s even worse to disagree with someone in the presence of a third person. Therefore, asking them if they agree with you will probably lead to a “Yes,” even when they mean “No.”
I, too, live in a country where some ethnic cultures shy away from using a direct “No.” This means that people sometimes say “Yes” when they don’t mean it at all, which leads to misunderstanding, frustration and even conflict.
So, What Does No Mean?
Over the past few weeks, I made it my work to listen to how people use the word “No.” Apart from the obvious meanings, I observed some implied meanings, too. Here’s what I “heard” between the lines:
- I’m strong enough in my convictions to say “No.”
- I know who I am and I know what I want.
- I know my boundaries and I know how far my resources will stretch.
- I know my values and I’ll stand by them.
- No means self-care, and it means focusing on what’s important.
- No means not living for the approval of others.
I’ve also noticed occasions when “No” can be kinder, gentler, and more patient than “Yes.” Sometimes, “No” is mature while “Yes” is needy. “No” can be totally cool and can prevent unrealistic expectations. “No” doesn’t mean:
- I hate you.
- I don’t love you.
- I don’t care about you.
- You’re not important to me.
“No” is what it is: it’s simply “No.” Your life won’t come to a standstill if someone says “No” to you. Other people won’t be traumatized if you say “No.” They might take a while to understand your reasoning, but all will be good if the relationship is built on foundations of trust and respect.
And me? I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I’d rather hear a truthful “No” than a window-dressing “Yes.”
Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No
During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last week, we discussed not saying “Yes” when you want to say “No.” Common themes were that people say “Yes” in order to please others, and because they fear the consequences of saying “No.”
Here are all the questions we asked during the chat, and some of the many responses they generated:
Q1. Why do we say “Yes” when we want to say “No”?
@WonderPix: Generally, to make others happy, to be positive, because it’s less uncomfortable than saying no.
@SaifuRizvi: Sometimes out of respect and fear. Sometimes our desire to make everyone happy. Sometimes lack of courage and confidence push us to say yes!
Q2. Who are you afraid of saying “No” to, and why?
Of course, the usual suspects reared their ugly heads: manipulative people and bullies. Some people were afraid of losing their jobs. That wasn’t all, though:
@MikeBarzacchini: I don’t fear others when it comes to saying “no.” But perhaps I fear myself. Am I missing an opportunity? Will I be viewed negatively? Confidence, self-awareness, focus and purpose help me speak a healthy “no.”
@AngeliceJonae: Individuals I’ve built personal relationships with and who know my work performance. I don’t want to skew their perception of me as a person, and/or a professional.
Q3, What values underpin your ability to say “Yes” or “No”?
Many of our participants mentioned integrity and honesty as two values that helped them to say “No.”
@NBlairHRDigital: Integrity, professionalism and honesty.
@JoynicoleM: It’s easier to say yes or no when I am clear on my purpose, capacity, and expected outcomes. When I value my identity in the situation, I stay on course. When I don’t, I am often led astray.
Q4. How do you feel when you say “Yes,” but when you really want to say “No”?
A common theme that emerged is that saying “Yes” when we don’t mean it hardly ever makes us feel good!
@ShajoeHR: Just like accepting to walk on broken glass with bare feet.
@ZalkaB: I start questioning myself. I quieten my mind to try and understand what trigger made me do something like this, and why.
Q5. What are the risks of saying “Yes” when we want to say “No”?
@GenePetrovLMC: Not doing top quality work or not even finishing the task or project. That can be more harmful to your reputation and business than just saying no at the start.
@SayItForwardNow: The risks of saying “yes” when we want to say “no” are over-committing, compromising our personal priorities, and experiencing resentment. Painful lessons!
@harrisonia: We risk miscommunication and misunderstanding – actually we become guilty of it – when we say YES if we really mean NO.
Q6. When is it appropriate to say “Yes,” even though you’d prefer not to?
We recognize that it’s necessary to say “Yes” sometimes. Many agreed that an emergency would justify it. More thoughts here:
@JKatzaman: Say yes when it serves the greater good. Your way isn’t necessarily the highway. In the long run, a reluctant yes that benefits many others also comes back good for you.
@KrisGiere: When you have a responsibility to the work, person, or position. I don’t consider my preferences to be appropriate reasons to say “no.” Maybe that’s where I go wrong.
Q7. What are the benefits of learning to say “No”?
Inner peace, self-care and preventing yourself from feeling overwhelmed were the order of the day. A number of participants also mentioned preventing burnout.
@ShereesePubHlth: No allows you to prioritize and to create better workflows. It also teaches others how to treat you.
@TwisterKW: Empowerment. Hopefully, it means you’re developing critical thinking, ability to evaluate work and workload, understand your measure of worth does not come from a yes or a no.
Q8. How can you empower yourself to say “No”?
@mai_designer: Practicing saying “no” and not feeling guilty if I couldn’t do it. Take one step at a time.
@OkemaForever: It’s more important than ever to be honest. If you have to say no, say it, think of the long term, not always the now.
Q9. How do you handle saying “No” to a request? What sorts of things do you say and what words do you use?
@MicheleDD_MT: What can we defer, reassign or remove to enable me to take this on? Can we get a resource from another team to help?
@NWarind: Being diplomatic is the answer. I am with you all the way but I am unable to find a way.
@Midgie_MT: Sometimes say I have to think about it before giving an answer. When answering, say “I have been thinking about … and I have decided …”
Q10. How might you empower others to say “No”?
To begin with, you need to set the right example. A few other thoughts include:
@MurrayAshley: I think they would first need to acknowledge it’s a problem and want to change. I have a colleague who can’t say no, but believes it is a positive.
@jeremypmurphy: It’s helpful to express love and compassion in helping people say no, practice with them if they ask, tell them privately if you think it’s best for them to decline.
@Yolande_MT: Help them interrogate their own assumptions about saying yes and no. Ask good questions to help them explore the validity of their assumptions.
Mental health issues are a reality that many of us live with. They’re often misunderstood because they’re not visible. People who have mental health issues often experience unsympathetic treatment and even discrimination. There are also sympathetic managers and colleagues who simply don’t know how to deal with a mental health issue at work.
The topic for our next #MTtalk chat, on February 2, is “The Impact of Mental Health Issues at Work.” In this week’s poll we’d like to know what you think is the biggest reason someone won’t disclose a mental health issue at work. Click here to cast your vote.
In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you to learn more about not saying “Yes” when you want to say “No”:
How to Be Assertive
Coping Under Pressure
“Yes” to the Person, “No” to the Task
How to Get the Best From an Extra Miler
Essential Negotiation Skills
Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress
How Can I Stop Saying Sorry All the Time?
Mind Tools Club members can also access the full versions of the following articles:
How to Avoid Generosity Burnout
Managing Your Boundaries
Managing Conflicting Priorities
Dealing With Bossy Co-Workers
Dealing With Manipulative People
How to Manage Controlling People
Dealing With Difficult People
Standing Up for Your People