You are constantly bombarded with requests for your time, money and commitment, more than you can possibly take on. How do you know which opportunities are right for you? In order to use your time efficiently, and stay sane, you need to be able to say “yes” and “no” with minimum anxiety. Why does guilt so often follow hot on the heals of such a small but loaded word as no? Why do doubt and regret follow so close after the word yes?

Whether it’s a romantic relationship, family, colleague or friend, we all have to say “no” from time to time. Most of us find this hard and we often end up feeling conflicted. Your adult child wants to borrow money again and you say “no” because you don’t want to enable him and you want him to learn responsibility. Your young child wants to stay up late and you say “no” because you want to protect her from being tired the next day. Your colleague wants you to take on some of their work and you say “no” because you are already overloaded.

No is hard, and yes isn’t much easier. How do you say “yes” to a child without creating an attitude of entitlement? How do you say “no” to a child without crushing their spirit? How do you say “yes” to a friend without losing your own power? How do you say “no” to a friend without harming the relationship? How do you say “yes” to a client without setting up false expectations? How do you say “no” to a client without losing their business?

No is the defining word of negativity, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Yes is the defining word of permission, but it isn’t permission to be walked over. Yes and no can work together for the highest good. Saying “no” can be a liberating experience for everyone involved, especially when your “no” is coming from your highest intention which is clearing the way for a deeper “yes”.

In the British comedy series The Vicar of Dibley, most of the action takes place in church meetings with a collection of oddballs. There is the farmer who always comes in to meetings late and gives way too much information about his cows’ bowel movements. Then there is Jim who has a speech impediment. He has the habit of starting every sentence with the stuttered “no, no, no, no, no…..” This gets him in all sorts of trouble. Jim tells the story of when he was a contestant on Deal or No Deal. He was presented with the ultimate choice and asked the question, deal or no deal? He wanted to take the deal, but stuttered “no, no, no, no, no…deal.” He lost the million dollars.

As you can imagine decision making is difficult on the parish council with Jim involved. When they call for a vote, he says, “No, no, no, no, no….yes.” Talk about waiting for the deeper yes. He does introduce the theme nicely, as there is often a series of “nos” that reveal a deeper “yes”.

Give yourself permission to say “no”. Reclaim the power of “no” without guilt. It’s a beautiful thing- for you, for the other person and for the relationship. It offers everyone involved the gift of self responsibility. When you have clear reasons and a clear strategy for saying “no” it becomes a very positive and empowering experience.

Rosa Parks offers an awesome example of this truth. When Rosa Parks said no she was really saying yes to something more important. She said a series of nos; to the bus driver, to the others on the bus and to the police. But these nos were coming from a deeper YES- to her own value as a human being worthy of equality and respect. It wasn’t just exhaustion or anger, it was a positive strategy towards change. It was an affirmation of dignity.

That’s the sort of no that gets to the heart of things. Her decision to trust her no because it was coming from a deeper yes changed her life and changed the lives of millions of people ever since, every one of us in fact.

The same principle holds for many people leaving relationships or jobs. As hard as it may be, the choice to say no is liberating because you are stamping a giant YES on your own worth as a human being and leaving yourself open to the many things still in store for you. You are saying yes to yourself and to new relationships and jobs that are more closely aligned with who you are. You deserve to be treated well. You deserve beliefs that are life affirming and build confidence. You deserve the most respectful relationships and the most empowering beliefs. Accept nothing less. Say “no” to anything less.

In the book Power of a Positive No, William Ury suggests a three pronged, yes/ no/ yes plan to healthy communication. It’s a positive no strategy. A negative no starts with no and ends with no. A positive no starts with yes and ends with yes. The first YES expresses your interest; the No asserts your power; and the second YES enhances your relationship. In the case of Rosa Parks, the first yes is to her self dignity, the no is to inequality and the second yes is her part in civil rights that benefit all. In the case of a relationship, the first yes is to your own self worth, the no is to mistreatment, and the second yes is to the creative resolution for all involved.

The initial yes comes from your core values, your roots. The no is in service of your deeper yes, and this no then opens up possibilities to say yes to a win/win. The result is healthy relationships. When you live from your deepest values, you are saying yes to life no matter what circumstances arise.

It’s all about uniting your yeses and nos. This is how Ury sums it up-

“Yes without No is appeasement, whereas No without Yes is war. Yes without No destroys one’s own satisfaction, whereas No without Yes destroys one’s relationship with others. We need both Yes and No together.  For Yes is the key word of community, No the key word of individuality. Yes is the key word of connection, No the key word of protection. Yes is the key word of peace, No the key word of justice. The great art is to learn to integrate the two—to marry Yes and No. That is the secret to standing up for yourself and what you need without destroying valuable agreements and precious relationships.”

Finally, here are some practical pointers in the yes/no/yes strategy-

  • Never say no immediately. Give yourself time. Most things aren’t as urgent as they appear. Buy some time to rehearse your thoughts in your mind.
  • Trust your gut. Your inner resistance may be telling you something you hadn’t realized. Pay attention to your intuition.
  • Describe your interests first. It’s better to describe what you’re for rather than what you’re against. Help the other person to understand what you’re trying to protect. You may share more common ground than you first thought.
  • Have a plan B. Before stating your plan A, have your plan B ready. This may include delaying a decision, or moving forward without agreement, or removing yourself from the situation. Your plan B will give you confidence in your plan A. This is like turning up to a meeting with resignation letter in your brief case just in case. Options equal confidence.
  • Express your need without neediness. Present your case with conviction and matter-of-factness. You don’t need the other person to agree with you, just to hear you. Your communication is your responsibility. The other person’s choice is their ability to respond- responsibility.
  • As you close one door, open another. Don’t shut down conversation. Create alternatives that others can get behind.
  • Be respectful. When you raise your voice or use derogatory languages, you prevent people from hearing the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. So keep your cool, be kind, and give others the respect they deserve.

If all you do is say blunt nos, you could easily get stuck in a cycle of negativity. Say no out of a deeper yes that your whole being: mind, body and spirit, can sing in concert. Choose relationships that affirm your worth and dignity. Measure everything you hear and read by evidence, by intuition and by your deeper yes. Does it resonate with your deepest vision for the world? Does it make your life more whole and healthy? Does it strengthen your relationships? If you are saying “yes” to these questions, then you know you are living with integrity. From your highest self you can say “no” with ease and it won’t threaten your relationships. It will open up paths you have long sought to the deeper yes that lies within.

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  1. Thank you, Ian. This article beautifully complements my article “Happiness and Saying No” at http://www.spryfeet.com/2011/06/15/happiness-and-saying-no/. And I especially take to heart your advice to never say no immediately. Well done!

  2. ian says:

    thanks Kirk. I enjoyed yours also. I’m not much of a runner, but appreciate your site and perspective.

  3. Blake says:

    Long winded introduction, Great Vicker example, solid life advice in the end.

  4. ian says:

    thanks Blake. You made me smile.

  5. Angelee says:

    Yeah, its really hard to say NO, but sometimes the consequences are harder when you always say YES… Even I tend to rephrase negative statements but it really is different when the NO is confirmed… Good read.

  6. shereen says:

    That was exactly what I need, thank you.

  7. In this increasingly polarized world, I wish more people would embrace this idea of being able to disagree without having to demonize your counterpart.

  8. shereen says:

    thank u Ian,,,,I really needed to read this at this particular minute.

  9. shereen says:

    someone just made the tears cover my face,,,,,I really needed to read this article again & again.

  10. [...] deeper “yes” to who you are, and allows you to pace yourself and hold overwhelm at bay. (Clich here for a longer piece on saying [...]

  11. As someone slowly overcoming the need to constantly say yes, I really enjoyed this post: it speak to healthy boundaries and a more joyous and authentic YES. Thank you. 

  12. Brett says:

    I have never put that much thought in to answering yes or no unless it’s life changing experience, thanks for clarifying my lack of decision and something I need to work on. :)  

  13. Jilli B says:

    Love it, love it, love it! Thank you, this resonated with me just at the moment I needed it most.

  14. [...] Saying YES with Conviction, and Saying NO with Clarity (SoulSeeds) [...]

  15. Jasna says:

    I  love and respect our planet .This is my first law.I love and respect life.This is my second law.I respect diversity -all religions,nationalities,freedom of thougts.This is my third law.I am peaceful inside me and to the world-I care for world around me.This is my fourth law.My fifth law is to know what is going on and watching the world from more pespectives.Only when I know all from all perspectives ,I can say YES or NO.

  16. Edmund says:

    This is something a subordinate must learn. I’ll share this in my next class… thanks for publishing this. :)