Aug 04

The Power of No

Power of No


The Power of No

No is the most powerful word in the English language. Ask any 3 year old. This is a major part of our development as humans, to realize we have the power to resist rather than simply go along with everything the world wants from us. It is an awesome super power and as children we wield this weapon in concert with the temper tantrum to great effect.


Eventually however, it becomes apparent that society does not look kindly upon this as a default behavior. What is cool at 3 becomes pathologic and antisocial at 23.


We are a culture of ‘yes’. We live in a world where cooperation has been the bedrock of our survival. It is why humans have been so successful over the ages; we can work together and cooperate like no other animal. Cooperation allows great sub-specialization and efficiency as we can focus on a specific need society has for a good or service while others focus on other needs. It requires saying yes to rules and activities we may not enjoy.  It is a beautiful symphony that drives progress foreword with an unseen powerful momentum.


And it is also a curse…


People subconsciously know that humans are wired to cooperate and help, so when they need something they are not afraid to ask for it. And while it is a great thing to be helpful to others, a more important skill is to be able to say no. I wouldn’t recommend coupling it with a typical toddler tantrum, but it is a word you need to get used to using effectively.



Why is this so important?


We have a limited amount of time, energy and attention – and the universe will take all of it from you if you let it.


As mentioned, we used to be so good at this, but it is slowly beaten out of us as we progress through childhood. We learn to do things that we dislike no matter how ridiculous and unhelpful they may be, and we are told ‘no’ is not an option.



“Eat all your food on that plate!” (but I’m not hungry…)

“Go to school and get good grades!” (but school is boring and mostly unhelpful…)

“Believe in my religion/politics/worldview!” (but what if I have different beliefs?)

“Be nice to your brother!” (but he is an asshole and sociopath!)



Eventually most of us run out of energy and just start saying yes, especially about the little things. It is easier in many ways.


We spend so much time saying yes to things that it becomes habit. Our default becomes yes instead of no. We may even start to feel guilty if we say no to something because we are conditioned for yes. If we say no we are letting someone down.


This is a big way the invisible clutter of unnecessary commitments and dysfunctional relationships enter your life.


Saying no is the best way to start decluttering these huge energy sinks.



The untouchables


Do you ever notice how some people just seem to float above it all – just drift above the bullshit of life. They appear to always be happy and carefree. They always seem to be doing what they want to. These people are untouchable it seems.


I used to think this was some sort of voodoo magic, but after close observation I learned their secret. They just know how to say no much more effectively than you. ‘No’ is their default setting.


Whenever someone is trying to sell you something, whether it is an item or an idea you have the option of saying no. Let no be your default setting for a while and see how the possibilities open up for you. See if you can become one of the untouchables.


Next time you are negotiating for a car or other large purchase and the salesperson gets aggressive, just pause and say no. There is no good rebuttal for a polite but firm no.


The next time a friend asks you for money when they have not paid you back from the last ‘loan’ say you are out of the money lending business.


When you are asked to participate in an optional low value project or uninteresting committee at work, just say no (unless your career depends on it).


The next time someone asks you to go to a social commitment that you have no interest in, just say no. It helps if you give a genuine smile and thank them for the invite. Don’t lie to them or make up dumb excuses. Just a polite no will do.


If this is too stressful for you a “let me check my calendar and I’ll get back to you” or “let me think about it” is a nice place holder for the eventual no to follow.


Whatever you do DON’T say yes.


Your new default is now NO.


Repeat this until you believe it.



Why Should I do this?

The point, as always, is to increase freedom and happiness. Not being able to say no has a huge opportunity cost in that it steals energy from the yes that really matters. You won’t have to say no to everything. It is not the point to regress to the mentality of a three year old, or do something just to be oppositional or counter-culture. Saying no opens up more chances to say yes. Only now you will be excited to use the Y-word. Your yes will instead become HELL YEAH! Your life will start filling with the activities that bring you joy and fulfillment. You will be liberated. And it all starts with no.


I’m not your therapist, but from my experiences saying no can be the greatest agent of change in someone’s behavior. It forces them to either be better, or decide you are not worth it. It is a great filter. It cuts out a lot of wasted time and energy for both parties. No is about setting boundaries and expectations and these are even more important with family. It strengthens those relationships that are to be salvaged, and culls or minimizes the impact of the ones that probably need to be let go.


Needy and dysfunctional people that like to ask for things are naturally attracted to people that say yes. The more you say yes, the more they will ask you for things. Have you ever donated to a charity and then started receiving relentless solicitations for more shortly after, or on a mailing list for other charities? All I can think of is that they have rewarded me for my generosity by introducing more clutter into my life. Thank you for that. I find this almost as annoying as pop-up internet ads and telemarketers. I’ve learned my lesson and now only give to charities that take my money and leave me alone. I’m saying no. You need to learn this skill as well.



So How do I do This, it Seems so Hard and Complicated?

I’m glad you asked. Lucky for you I have developed a simple clinically proven three-step process for this I want to share with you.*

  • Step 1: Listen to person’s request

  • Step 2: Pause, thoughtfully reflect  and decide if it is an obligation that you want to participate in

  • Step 3: If you don’t, politely say no thank you



That’s it. If they keep asking you repeat steps 2 and 3 until they stop. You don’t have to lie and make up crazy excuses. These just cause more problems in the long run and there are real costs to dishonesty. You can wrap up the ‘no’ in diplomacy and flowery compliments, but remember to still say no. It is best to remain relatively unemotional about it though, people have an easier time accepting the no when it is calmly delivered. It’s also OK to put an “I’m sorry” before the NO. This is a nice touch and adds the impression that you care (even if you don’t).



Practice Makes Perfect.

Before you test this awesome weapon on the battle field it is worth honing your skills. Practice in front of a mirror until it becomes natural looking. Experiment with different language and facial expressions. Pretend you are auditioning for a movie.


So I like to employ the power of no. We all want to say yes, because with yes comes so much opportunity, but with the power of no comes focus and engagement.

Jared Leto





Now, let’s quickly address a couple of the common arguments against this methodology.



But I can’t say no to close friends and family

This is probably the most common reason people won’t say no. Maybe we can say no to strangers or acquaintances but not to our family. Many people I know fall into the trap of saying yes to friends or family, just because of this fact. You really can say no though. I know most of us feel some sort of perverse obligation to family, but blindly saying yes to everything leads to resentment and dysfunction.


If interactions with family are universally unpleasant, just say no to them. A friend once wearily told me about how difficult her mother-in-law was at family functions; being very insulting, passive aggressive and demanding. It made everyone miserable. When I suggested she stop going to these functions or not invite her to them she looked shocked.


“I can’t, she is family!”


Indeed. Treating people like crap is often justified under the guise of “but they are family”.


But now I’m a total jerk

Maybe, but if this is true most likely you were already an jerk and are now just being honest about it. My guess is this is not the case. Remember that honesty is a form of respect for people and is actually kinder than nice sounding lies if it is from a place of sincerity instead of malice. People may call you selfish or worse once you start saying no. Again, this may be true; after all we all are a little selfish at times. Remember though, when people ask something of you it is they that are being selfish as well. They want something out of you that is in their interest, not yours. Unless it is a win-win scenario your default should be no.


Before you start employing this strategy though , please say yes to my request to let me know what you think in the comments below 😉







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  1. I think we have the same brother.

    Actually, mine has softened a bit in recent decades. I’m quick to say no to committee work after years of volunteering my time and soul.

    It’s not quite the same as saying No, but I went to a cookout with coworkers the other day, and after dinner, I graciously thanked the hosts and then said “I wish I could honestly say I hate to eat and run, but truthfully I love to eat and run. See ya!”

    Social graces be damned.


    1. Ha! Love it. You combined the power of no with honesty. Epic.

    • VagabondMD on August 6, 2016 at 9:32 pm
    • Reply

    LOL to PofF!

    In my 20’s, I was told by a frustrated friend that I was a “people pleaser”, akin to being a yes man, and she was right. I have struggled with this, over the years, with varying success. Part of the reason is that in my mind, I want to do many of the things asked of me, and in an ideal world, with unlimited time, energy, and commitment, I would.

    We do not live in an ideal world. I need to learn to say Nnnnn…. Okay, let me try again, Nnnnn…. I’ll work on it. ?

    1. Lol, just keep practicing 😉

      You are spot on though – if time and energy were unlimited then it would seem silly to ever say no to a reasonable request. Helping people makes us feel better after all and we are programed for it. We just need to be sure we help ourselves first, then we can say yes to what is most important and meaningful to us.

  2. Our family function strategy is to save our seats at the table by putting our drinks down ASAP. My cousins and I snatch up the ‘adult kids’ end of the table and blatantly and unapologetically exclude anyone from the other generations.

    Thanks for this reminder that saying No is an option and a complete sentence.

    1. You are welcome. Thanks for reading 🙂

    • wendy on July 29, 2017 at 5:47 pm
    • Reply

    Great article!
    I say ‘no’ all the time… If people persist after the ‘no’ and the second ‘really, no thank you’, I usually go for the polite but brutally honest answer.
    Also, if there are people who push to much and/or belittle you for not saying yes, time to cut them out of your life (subject of one of your previous posts).
    As an introvert who needs to be extroverted at work, I’ve learned the hard way that I need to husband my emotional energy for what really matters to me (your ‘Hell Yes’) and make sure I’m spending my time & energy on things that are a priority.

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