Saying “no” to anyone, about anything, tends to be challenging. We know how uncomfortable it is to hear the “no” we would say. We want to avoid that discomfort and the consequences that might come our way for being “exposed” in our unwillingness. Many of us genuinely wish to be always caring and available, and find it strenuous to face a situation in which, for whatever reason, we don’t find the willingness or ability to say “yes” to what is being asked of us. In some cultures, or for certain groups of people, it is entirely unacceptable to say “no,” which only makes things more complex.
These challenges arise even in the most ordinary exchanges, or in our most trusted relationships, and are orders of magnitude more challenging when the relationship has power differences built into it. I plan to come back to the added complexity of how power and “no” interact. For now, I want to look at the “easier” piece, navigating a “no” in a relationship of equals, in a way that allows us to retain trust and a spirit of collaboration.
What Makes “No” So Challenging?
Every time anyone makes a request, two things operate simultaneously. One is the specifics of what is being asked for – the dishes, the report, the favor, or whatever it is. The other is the secret question that hovers over the request, known by both without being spoken or acknowledged, mostly without awareness: “Do I matter?” When the answer is “no,” not only is the specific need that led to the request not going to be attended to. In addition to that the person making the request more often than not will take the “no” to mean that the person saying “no” doesn’t care, or doesn’t care enough to say “yes.”
What this means, if we want to say “no” to someone, is that we need to find a way to subvert this fundamental dance. We can, instead, aim for a way to say “no” to the specific request while continuing to affirm that we care about the person making the request and about what’s important to them.
For the most part, we don’t know how to do that. Learning the essential steps of maintaining care and connection while saying “no” is one of the specific reasons I feel such gratitude to Marshall Rosenberg for inventing Nonviolent Communication (NVC). It was studying his recommendation and attempting to understand what led him to the specific suggestions he made that led me to understand so deeply the underlying conversation that rarely happens except unconsciously and usually with some pain.
Through this investigation and through experimentation in my work with people, I found several keys to reaching the goal of saying “no” and still conveying care. Each of these by itself can help us with this difficult task. The combination can turn a potential conflict into an opportunity for creative collaboration.
“No” to the Strategy; “Yes” to the Need
The more I study and teach the practice of NVC, the more I find that the most revolutionary aspect of it, on all levels, is the distinction between strategies and needs. When someone makes a request, they are presenting a strategy that, if I agree to, will support them in getting their needs met. That strategy is not synonymous with the need. Part of the art of saying “no” is recognizing that even if I am thoroughly unwilling to do what is being asked of me, I can almost always support the need, the person’s desire to get the need met. This is one piece of inner work for me: when I can make that separation within me, it’s easier for me to access the care I know this person likely seeks, in addition to and separately from the request itself. If you are not familiar with NVC, then you can think of the need, as I have written here before, as the “why” behind the “what” of the strategy. If I can articulate my fundamental interest in this person’s needs getting met and mean it, it already softens the intensity of the “no.”
Speaking the “Yes” behind the “No”
Just as much as this person’s request is a strategy to meet their needs, my saying “no” is a strategy to meet mine. This desire to say “no” likely represents other needs that I am saying “yes” to by saying “no” to the request. Finding the moment in the interaction to bring in what those other needs are that lead me to say “no” to this person’s request can also support the other person in taking in my “no” in a way that still conveys care. If the “why” of my “no” is clear and understandable, it’s less likely that the other person will take it as being a “no” to them. This is especially true if we keep affirming our intention to support the person in attending to what’s important to them whether or not we are the ones taking action about it.
Staying in Dialogue for Collaboration
If we are able to keep our attention focused on attending to what matters most, and keep coming back to that intention, life may surprise us. We might hear the needs of the other person more clearly and shift into saying “yes.” The other person may hear what’s behind our “no” and change their request to one that’s easier for us to say “yes” to. We may find, together, alternative ways of addressing what truly is at the heart of their request without agreeing to the request itself, ways that work remarkably well, sometimes even better, for both of us.
The point, here, is to stay in the not knowing, to back away from focusing on solutions, to insist on staying together in the dilemma until we reach a conclusion together. In my experience, when we are able to do that, we find more creativity than we might expect.
When a Solution Eludes Us
However much we are committed to supporting the other person, saying “no,” even as a step in the dialogue, even if we do everything else to convey care, is likely to have an effect. Especially if we are not able, even through dialogue, to find a strategy that would work for both of us, focusing on the quality of connection, seeking to solidify trust and mutual care even through the disappointment, become vitally important. Rather than closing our heart in order to say “no,” which is what we often do, we can choose to open our heart wider and wider, so that we actually feel the pain of saying “no” and are present to the effect. We can invite and encourage the other person – in this circumstance and in all circumstances of challenge – to tell us the full truth, and remain present to hear it.
The foundation of collaboration is togetherness, not necessarily or always an immediate solution. Togetherness is both the ground of co-creativity and the possibility of walking through the impossibility of finding a solution, sometimes, without losing the relationship. If we build trust through the process and through an ongoing relationship, we can find extraordinary sweetness in the shared grief that arises in not finding a path forward that works for both of us. It doesn’t matter, in these kinds of dialogue, who made the initial request and who said “no,” because the “no” itself becomes a request of the other person to look for other paths. We find a solution, together, or we grieve, together, and come to accept. Either way, staying together through the challenge increases the resilience of our relationship.
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