The practice of saying NO

Try this out…the next 3 requests you get for you time, money or mental effort, respond by saying, “NO”.

Rod B., a former colleague from many jobs ago always seemed relaxed when the rest of us were running around as though whatever we were working on was absolutely critical to the continued existence of the firm. I was fascinated (bordering on obsessed) with how Rod wasn’t phased by the seemingly overwhelming workload and the (again, seemingly) vast importance of the client work we were doing.

“Rod, pleeeeease tell me how you are so calm right now?”, I implored as I was preparing for a late night at the office and Rod was booting down his PC and putting on his coat at 5:30 pm.

“It’s simple,” he replied with a smile. “I just say no to people the first 3 times they ask for something. If it’s really important, they’ll ask for it a 4th time, and at that point I’ll commit to doing it”.

Duh. I was speechless. The word “no” wasn’t in my vocabulary at the tender age of 26. My brain was frantically trying to grasp this concept. How can I say no? I might let someone down? And worse, they might think I’m not perfect?

So I tucked the concept away in the, “that might work for other people, but not for me” category and went back to my important client work….for the next 8 years.

But Rod’s words haunted my ever-eager-to-please mentality. Especially, when I felt taken for granted, and people assumed I’d pick up their slack. I often wished I could do what Rod would do when asked to take on extra clients that required travel because my co-workers had kids. But alas, I felt like I needed a “really good” reason for me to say no….and at that point in my life, cultivating meaning and spirituality just didn’t cut it as a valid reason.

9/11 changed my mental model on saying no (along with my sense of safety). I was supposed to be on one of the planes that departed from Boston to California that Tuesday morning. My meetings in California were cancelled the week prior for some innocuous reason, and I (obviously) didn’t end up going.

I would not have been proud of what I’d done with my life had it ended that day. Sure, I’d have been known as being “a team player”, and a “hard worker”. But I believed I had more to offer the world and a responsibility to do more than work in an office solving other companies’ internal control problems. And so I made a commitment on 9/12 to use a portion of my time, skills and energy to do things that I thought were meaningful. Yes, there can be plenty of meaning derived from working in a corporate environment, but to me it wasn’t meaningful.

In order to make time for meaningful activities in my life, I had to begin by saying NO to other less meaningful activities. I started by saying no to working on weekends. This allowed me to teach a communication skills class to kids from Boston’s inner-city on Saturdays. Next, I said no to travel on Fridays so that I wasn’t exhausted on Saturday morning when I woke up to teach.

No one at work really noticed that I had reeled in my hours, but it made a huge impact on the quality of my life. It was still stressful for me not to check email on weekends, thinking I might be missing something important, but nothing was ever so important that I was blind sighted on Monday morning.

That was the start of my practicing saying no. I still loath to disappoint people, but I’m not afraid to anymore. Owning my own business makes it a little bit easier, because I don’t have a boss. But even when I take on consulting projects and do “report to” someone, I still say no when I need to protect the things that are meaningful to me (like having dinner at home with Scott).

When invited to a social event, I now ask myself each time, “do I want to go or am I going out of a sense of obligation?” If the answer is the latter, I say no. And yes, I still feel awkward, apologetic and guilty sometimes. But it gets easier. And I find I feel much less resentment toward other people for “taking” my time.

Saying no, like our yoga, is a practice and it takes time to feel comfortable. It’s a simple word that carries a lot of meaning…just like the word yoga.

Try it out…say no to the next 3 requests that come your way. See how it feels…let me know…or say NO to me!

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Scout said...

This lesson is so hard for me, my mom says my ringtone should be "Girl Who Can't Say No", from Oklahoma... thanks for expounding/expanding the motivation to say no!

Florian said...

Hi Scout! Thanks for sharing and helping keep me motivated too. Love the pic of you in Crane pose on your google id. Deb

Bob Weisenberg said...

Yes, this is brilliant. A simple little life-changing device!

Bob Weisenberg

callscott2000 said...