The Power of No

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss anti-lawyer sentiment as a reflection of a more general "rugged individualist" ethos that says people should handle bullies on their own rather than seeking third-party (e.g. court) intervention.  In the course of offering my analysis, I acknowledge that even as we support victims seeking redress through third-party assistance, it is simultaneously useful to educate people about the choices that they have for handling bullies.  In this post, I want to discuss one form of quasi-bullying that people encounter and that is often not amenable to litigation:  the "can you do me a favor?" request.

For many people, a request for a favor poses no special challenges.  If someone asks you to take care of something for them, and you are not inclined to do it, you simply say "no."  If you are such a person, then odds are good that you only occasionally encounter the sorts of unreasonable requests that plague people who have a much harder time saying "no."  If you are not sure into which category you fall, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  You receive an email in your inbox asking you to attend an event that you have no desire (and no straightforward obligation) to attend, because you either have no time for such an event or prefer to do something else, whether work-related or personal, during that time.

Do you simply write back, "Sorry.  I have to decline." or do you leave the email up on your screen, checking your calendar hopefully to see whether you can identify some excuse that the requesting party will consider legitimate for decliing?  And if you find no such "legitimate" excuse, do you agree to attend the event, because you feel reluctant and scared about failing to meet the other party's expectations?  Either way, do you feel stress and anxiety and wish that you had not received the request at all?

If you do the first, then you are probably comfortable with the word "no" and feel no need to worry, most of the time, about whether the other party finds your reason adequate.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing one of the other things (delaying a response, looking for excuses, saying yes while feeling resentful about being pressured into something you didn't want to do), then you are one of the many people who has a very difficult time saying "no."  As such, you are vulnerable to being pushed around and exploited.

Why do I say that?  Because the sorts of people who make unreasonable demands (cloaked as "requests") can smell a person who hates to say "no" from a mile away.  Reading the book The Power of a Positive No, by William Ury, could be as eye-opening for you as it was for me.

The book discusses the ways in which people make contributions to the lives of those around them for which they feel neither joy nor satisfaction, because they did not want to make the contributions but instead were pressured into it by requests they felt they could not refuse.  Sometimes the implicit threat when people feel unable to say "no" is economic -- if you don't get your boss coffee, you may lose your job.  Other times, though, the threat is more social in nature -- the person making the request has framed things in a way that suggests that, absent a good excuse, you really ought to do this thing they are asking of you, and if you don't, then they may think less of a you as a result.  This is why people who are vulnerable to this sort of pressure often feel the need to articulate elaborate explanations for why they are saying "no," on the rare occasion that they in fact do say "no."

It is far better to pick and choose when you contribute to others' lives rather than feeling forced into contributions that you resent and find distasteful.  Indeed, the very same activity can be either a joy or drudgery, depending on whether you feel a sense of agency in having chosen to engage in it.  The Power of a Positive No observes that when you say "no" to one thing (or one person), you are usually saying yes to another.  For example, if you say "no" to an acquaintance who wants you to attend a party he is throwing, you consequently have time you would not otherwise have had to spend with the people you would rather see -- close friends, family, or whoever strikes your fancy.  By saying "no" to the acquaintance, you are accordingly saying yes to yourself and your friends or family.

The Power of a Positive No suggests that if your saying "no" triggers anger rather than acceptance by the other party (a reaction that may account for your anxiety about saying "no" in the first place), then the "request" that the other person made of you was in fact not a request at all but a demand.  Anger signifies an attitude that says you really should do whatever it is the other person has asked of you.  Warmth and acceptance signify an attitude that says the request really was just a question, and either "yes" or "no" is a fine response.

After reading this book, I have made a point of stating explicitly, when I make requests of poeple (rather than, say, demands like "it's time to brush your teeth, kids"), that it is completely fine for the other person to decline.  Knowing that people sometimes say yes because they fear that a "no" will occasion anger, I bend over backwards to clarify the fact that I am interested in only the sort of help or favor that is freely given, not in pressuring someone to do what they do not want to do.

As I suggested above, the sort of bullying I am referencing here (where people take advantage of acquaintances, friends, and others who have a difficult time disappointing them) is not typically subject to litigation.  Sometimes, however, it can be.  At some point, for example, friendly overtures and requests for a date can turn into coercive stalking or harassment.  And other times, people may pressure co-workers, family members, or friends into shirking their ethical or legal obligations.  When that happens, it is useful to rememer that (a) "No" is a complete sentence.  No excuses are required for doing what you know to be the right thing or refraining from doing what you know is wrong; and (b) the refusal to take "no" for an answer can sometimes be remedied by a well-planned trip to court.