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It seems strange that such a simple word, made up of two letters, requires so much effort to pronounce. Beyond its bad image, this article focuses on the NO so that we can understand its purpose and even take a liking to it.

What does say NO mean to me? If each of us asked ourselves this question, we would get a multitude of answers and most of them would probably have a negative connotation, reflecting resistance or fear: fear of not being up to the task, disappointing the other person, generating rejection, or even provoking a conflict.

So, what is the reason for our resistance? Let’s look at some of the most common explanations.

First, the country and environment have a strong influence on how people use and perceive the “no”. If we consider the Spanish culture, we share with other countries along the Mediterranean a common origin that places a lot of importance on trade and interpersonal relations and makes “no” a word to avoid. Even more so if we compare ourselves, for example, with Northern Europe where saying no is much easier.

Another reason lies in personal upbringing and experience. Each of us will remember whether we were obedient or rebellious as children. A child who behaves obediently usually does so to please adults and to get gratification in return: a gift, a phrase of recognition or a simple look of approval. The risk is that we continue to use a strategy that worked for us in the past when it is no longer appropriate in present situations in our adult life.

Of course, it also depends very much on the people we have to say no to. It will be much more difficult to do so when there is a very close relationship or if the other person represents an authority figure for us, which can unconsciously take us back to our experience as obedient or rebellious children.

Beyond all these reasons, the difficulty of saying no would not be understood without the existence of another word that is almost just as short, but much more tempting and attractive, YES.

A voice inside us whispers that by saying yes, we are going to sound great, without having to explain ourselves or enter a conversation that makes us uncomfortable. “Yes” is like a magic word that simplifies everything. If someone asks us for something, by saying yes, we solve their problem, we meet their needs.

No is no, yes is yes

Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. What a yes offers us is (relative) peace of mind in the present moment, but at a cost that may become very high soon. Every time we say yes, we implicitly make a commitment, a bit like signing a contract without reading the fine print. This contract involves our word and our credibility in the eyes of others.

We avoid saying no for fear of disappointing others, but once we say yes, the disappointment will be much greater if we are not able to deliver. We risk getting exactly the opposite of what we were looking for: instead of recognition, our personal image may suffer. And no matter if the failure to deliver is the result of circumstances beyond our control, what will remain in the end is that we have not kept our promise.

To avoid so much disappointment and frustration, we must learn to say no. This word will help us to set limits, in order to protect ourselves from three main types of requests:

  • Those that we anticipate as impossible or at least very complicated to carry out, due to a lack of time, resources, or preparation.
  • Those that do not belong to us and should fall to other people.
  • Those that can directly harm us, because they affect, for example, our personal ethics or our self-esteem.

Even so, many of us still say yes when we meant to say no. Just imagine a typical situation in which you are overloaded with work and suddenly you receive a request to perform a task with a certain level of complexity as soon as possible. What could you do?

  • Start by asking for some time, even if it is only a few minutes, to stop the pressure that pushes you towards a yes. You can then assess the situation (your availability, the complexity of the task, the context) before making a reasoned decision.
  • If you have decided to do the task, you should take the initiative to propose a realistic timeframe for completion rather than asking when they need it done.
  • If you have decided not to carry out the task, you can follow the following guidelines:
  1. Say “I can’t” (or “I don’t want to”) in a polite but straightforward tone.
  2. Be firm with your no in case the other person insists (and he or she surely will).
  3. Explain your reasons without going into too much detail.
  4. Show empathy with the other person.
  5. Propose an alternative if there is one.

It is recommended to practice saying no in less compromising situations in our daily lives, so that it becomes easier and easier. We will realise that saying no to another person means being honest with them and with ourselves.

Despite our initial hesitation and resistance to break the comfort of yes, we must keep in mind that “saying no is always an option“.

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