Man showing sign of no using his hands

“A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

NO. The most powerful and needed word in the language today is also potentially the most destructive and for many people, the hardest to say. Yet when we know how to use it correctly, this one word has the power to profoundly transform our lives for the better.

A universal problem

Every day we find ourselves in situations in which we need to say No to people on whom we depend. Imagine all the occasions for No that might plausibly arise in the course of an average day:

Over breakfast, your young daughter begs you to buy her a new toy. “No,” you respond, trying to toe the line, “You have enough toys.” She pleads, “Please, pretty please, all my friends have one.”

How can you say No without feeling like a bad parent?

When you arrive at work, your boss asks you to work through the weekend to complete an important project. It is the very weekend you and your spouse have been looking forward to for some getaway time. How can you say No without jeopardising your promotion review which is coming up soon?

A key customer calls up and asks that you deliver the product three weeks ahead of schedule. You know just how much stress this will create internally and that, in the end, the customer may not be happy with the quality of the product. But it is your key customer and they will not take No for an answer. How can you say No without spoiling the relationship with the customer?

Your spouse raises the problem of your elderly mother, who cannot live alone and wants to come live with you. Your spouse is adamantly opposed and urges you to call your mother and tell her No. But how can you say No to your own mother?

The evening news is filled with stories of violence and injustice. Genocide is taking place in a far-off country. Children are dying of hunger while food is rotting away in warehouses. Dangerous dictators are developing weapons of mass destruction. ‘How are we as a society going to say No to these threats?’ You wonder.

Sound at all familiar?

All these situations have one thing in common: in order to stand up for what counts, satisfy your needs or those of others, saying No to a demand or request that is unwelcome, a behaviour that is inappropriate or abusive, or a situation or system that is not working or not fair.

Why no, why now

Saying No has always been important, but perhaps never as essential a skill as it is today.

In the course of my work wherever I go, I see people under increasing levels of stress and pressure. I meet managers and professionals who are being burned out by overwork. I see people struggling to juggle work and family, with a particularly heavy burden on women who work outside the home. I encounter parents who find little quality time to spend with their children, and I find children overloaded with homework and lessons, with less playtime. Everywhere people are overloaded and overwhelmed, I among them.

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A version of this was first published in the June 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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