Becoming Dr. No--that's the most common fear I hear as I describe the Power of No. Following some elaborate explanation of the incredible wonders of No, I pause and glimpse a perplexed look on someone’s face. With a little coaxing, the anxiety gradually surfaces:
“I don’t like saying No.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“Well, No is so negative. And I like to be positive.”
“Yes, that’s interesting. I mean, I like to be positive too. But don’t you realize that that little word No provides for health, integrity, and true success, that our No’s guard our Yes’s, that… huh, what did you say again?”
“Won’t saying No make me into a negative person?”
“No. Do you have another question?”
Actually that is not how I respond because the question is legitimate and one that skulks around the Power of No. Let’s face it: No is not most people’s favorite word. Actually, it’s not my choice for Word of the Year either. And really it shouldn’t be. If we like to declare No abundantly, we ought to be nervous. I for one don’t want anyone to become “Dr. No” as a result of applying the Power of No.
The solution is realizing that No cannot stand alone. It must be surrounded by affirming more vital and strategic values or commitments. If a healthy relationship between No and Yes is in place, then we can remember why we say No and simultaneously declare No to the debilitating force of guilt in our life. No’s must be spoken to things of lesser value to protect greater values. When we’ve clarified our values and taken time to be quiet to stay on track, then we know the difference between what’s demanding our attention and what’s truly vital and strategic. Let me explain a little further.
On the one hand, there’re tasks almost every day that require our attention and that also require response—for example, when child breaks an arm, or you realize it’s the 20th of the month and the Visa bill’s due tomorrow. Those crises happen. But there are also those demands that bark for attention, but are neither vital nor strategic, yet they tempt us by their urgency. Telephone calls, instant messages, and email—as three examples—can plow through everything in their path. They seem urgent, but how many emails selling discounted Prozac and Viagra do you need to respond to? We can even get seduced by the clarity of direction they present. Or we’re motivated by moving from crisis to crisis and never arriving at more fundamental tasks. Finally, on the other hand (was that the third hand?), there is a category of activities that possess no intrinsic urgency. Nevertheless, this third type is strategic and vital: financial planning, building new skills in your job, finishing a book on The Power of No, making sure you take that mountain bike ride. These activities will never get done without the Power of No. If you skipped the chapter on true success, that’s concerned with defining this third type of activity.
The management guru, Stephen Covey, offers this insight about No and how important things central: "Keep in mind that you are always saying 'no' to something. If it isn’t to the apparent, urgent things in life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things. Even when the urgent is good, the good can keep you from the best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it."
In other words, an unrestrained Yes to urgent demands = a No to the important. These “fundamental, highly important things” create the center of who you are, of what you want to accomplish, and of the kind of relationships you want.
So know why you say No and you won’t have to respond to every demand. That way you can say No and not become Dr. No. Saying No doesn’t make you a negative person if it’s meant to protect a Yes or two.
With these values in place, I admit that it can still be difficult to say No. I’ve discovered this simple rule of thumb:
Say No with conviction but humanity.
Without conviction, it sounds like you don’t mean it.
Without humanity, it’s simply negativity.
By “conviction” I mean that very few people like No. But realize this: In not saying No, you’re really saying No to a more important Yes. (Clear, aren’t I?) You can’t enact every Yes that comes along. “Your Yes only means something if you also say No.” And then there’s humanity—being sure to engage the request personally. Just because you’re protecting deeper commitments and values through your No doesn’t imply that you have to say, “I am thankful that, at this point, I shall declare a No to this less strategic—but highly demanding—request. Do you really think it’s important? Hah! I have more vital activities then this gangly, adolescent demand. Be gone with you!” If you declare No like this or if you simply like saying No too much, you’re probably not follow the guideline of humanity.