Say no and say no more

​Say you’ve booked a table for tomorrow night at a restaurant. But now you have to cancel. If you’re considerate, you’ll call up and let them know you’re not coming. 

When you ring to let the restaurant know, what do you say? Do you just say you’re not coming and hang up? Or do you say you’re not coming and then give an explanation? Do you try to justify it by saying that so-and-so is ill, or that your babysitter cancelled? 

Ask yourself a question: when you say no, to anything, do you give explanations and justifications? If a friend asks to meet up with you one night this week, and you can’t, do you attempt to explain why you can’t? If your work asks you to do some overtime, do you say no and then give reasons for your decision?

Most of us, most of the time, seem to operate under the delusion that, when we say no, we have to have a good reason for it. But when you say yes to someone or something, your reason doesn’t matter. The person asking doesn’t care because you’re doing what they want you to do. So why do we feel the need to explain a negative decision to those on the receiving end of it? Why do we feel compelled to say, “Oh, I’ve got plans already.” “I have to look after the kids.” “I’m expecting a delivery.” Or even, “I won’t take the project on because it’s not my area of expertise.” Isn’t the fact that we don’t want to not enough? Why can’t we just say, “No”, and leave it at that?

Consider a typical hierarchical relationship. Imagine a CEO is talking with a head of department. If the CEO asks the department head to do something, and the department head says no, then he’ll be expected, implicitly, to give some justification or reason for his refusal. But if it’s the other way around—the department head is asking the CEO to do something—the CEO can refuse without explaining his reasoning to the department head.

Why? It’s about the balance of power. A CEO expects justification from a person who’s lower in the hierarchy than him, simply because of the virtue of his position. And he isn’t expected to give an explanation because he doesn’t have to explain himself, or his decisions, to someone lower in the organisational chart.

If explanation, reasons, and justification are only provided to those who assume the greater share of relative power in a relationship, then it follows that, by offering them in accompaniment with every “no”, we are giving others power over us.

We don’t have to do that. We don’t have to explain ourselves. We can cancel something without saying why. We can turn down opportunities without having to argue our case. 

Only the weak are compelled to offer justification. But weakness—in this instance—is not a birthright or an unchangeable state. It is a choice. Anytime we want, we can stop giving people power over us. All we have to do is say no, and then say no more.