"How To Say No" | Welcome Message

Many people use avoidance to say No

You don’t answer an email, at least not for a long time. You pretend not to hear a spoken question. Or you drop off a Zoom call at an awkward moment and blame “connection problems”.

But avoidance has a price, because if someone doesn’t answer your emails you don’t tend to feel more warmly towards them. Avoidance is just one way of saying No, and in most instances it’s not the best one.

[ Hello. I’m John-Paul. I’ve been a writer and editor on the Financial Times, published six books in 16 languages, and performed on stage. This is a transcript from a recent workshop. There’s a welcome video further down the page. ]

It would be really good if you could turn on your camera for a moment, because I’m used to doing this workshop in a room with people and doing it like this is like standing in front of people with a bag over their heads…

- Oh hello! Wow. Great. Hello. Hello! I can’t tell you how nice it is to see your faces. It just makes all the difference in the world. I don’t mind if anyone can’t put the camera on. I do understand, but maybe you could just send a message? You can send a message directly to just me. I’m going to make a point of not naming people who send messages.

So hello, Hong Kong, Mumbai, London, Singapore, Hong Kong. I’m just gonna call out your names. Hello, Daphne. You were very early to join the call. Thank you. Melissa, I think you were here early too. Hello Mary. Hello Miranda. Charmaine. Mohin. Hello Joletta – I hope I said that, right? And hello Karen and hello William and hello Bo and hello Cecilia and hello Katie.

If you are here: thank you. Your time is precious. It’s precious to me that you’ve bothered to turn up. I’m glad you are here and I really want to be useful to you.

In this session you will:

1. Gain awareness about how to handle Yes / No so they work for you.
2. Learn actual words you can use / tweak to suit your own situation

It would be useful to know what sorts of things you personally would like to know more about? You could put those in the chat – either directly to me, or to everyone. That way, we can hear what everyone in the room wants from this question of How To Say No. It could be any number of things – and I’ve got some ideas already, and I’ll read these out afterwards.

Think about things in public life, in your world, whatever your world is – it could be your street, your neighborhood, your, your government, whatever. Then things in your private life. And things in your work. You don’t have to say what the particular thing is, but what is the underlying issue?

[ None of the people who were off-camera sent messages, now or later. In effect, they said No to my request. They didn’t really need help with How To Say No! ]

There’s one comment already:

How to politely say no to meetings. We tend to get invited to everything, but the meetings where we do not contribute or take anything away are the biggest waste of time.

Great. Thank you. And another comment:

Away from work, how to say no to your better half?

Thank you, that’s a very widespread, uh, point of curiosity. Nice to have it named. And here’s another:

How to say no in a way that makes it clear that it’s a definite no, that I was the wrong addressee. Don’t try your luck again – politely. It does happen a lot.

Another one:

Sometimes we’re asked to do something that we know is pointless, but it’s difficult to say no cause of hierarchy, et cetera.

Right. Thank you. Brilliant. Yeah. So some of the things that that need work are to do with other people making some kind of an incursion into our world and we, and we don’t have space for that incursion at the moment.

Keep typing and if I see it, I’ll read it out. But for now I’ll read you some that I’ve gathered from other workshops…

How to say no, without seeming harsh…
How not to feel guilty after saying no?

I’m happy to see you, because I can see little flickers of recognition on some faces. That helps me to give to you what you want in this session. And I think it’s important to draw attention to what’s actually happening right now, because this session is itself a transaction between human beings.

You have given me your time and I’m trying to make it useful to you. I asked you to leave comments. And some of you did and some of you didn’t and I – I’m not making any judgments, because if you didn’t want to, well, that’s great, perfect – but if you did do those things I asked, then you sort of said Yes to something, didn’t you?

I’m just, just drawing attention to the fact that in life people make these little requests.

Often, they don’t look like requests. Sometimes they’re not requests. Like, “I need this report on Tuesday.” That’s not a request, is it? It’s a statement. And it’s particularly hard to say No when you haven’t been asked. Mustering the energy to say No to a statement is exhausting.

I’m seeing some messages, uh, about some of us feeling individually that we are either a “No person” or a “Yes person”. I think that’s pretty common. And some more:

How to make a quick decision when asked something?
How not to cave in under pressure?
How not to ramble?
How to allow others to say no?

That one’s really important. Because if you find it hard to say No, it could be that you don’t generally tend to be very generous at letting other people say No. Happily, I would suggest that if you become more skilled at letting other people say no, you might find it easier to say No yourself. There’s a kind of a get-better-at-both thing going on here.

And some more questions:

How to handle different cultural approaches to no?
How to say no in a hierarchical setup?
How to say no as a woman?
How to avoid seeming a party pooper?
How to say No instead of just avoiding and not answering?

That last one’s really important, because if you start by avoiding somebody’s email, you’ll find yourself avoiding face-to-face contact, and then you’ll wonder if you need to leave a job. Avoidance is not a long-term approach: you need to find a way to carry on a negotiation, a conversation, a discussion.

[ The workshop continued. ]


Welcome Video

[ I recorded this before the first session in the series, to introduce myself to participants and invite questions and comments. ]

1 min 45 secs

Before we meet in this workshop, please tell me one thing that would make your work / life better if you were more comfortable saying No.

If you can’t think of anything – congratulations! But feel free to say hi all the same.


Stop And Breathe

When we feel pressure, we stop breathing properly, our muscles tense up and we start thinking only in extremes, as if we have only two choices:

1. a total No, which might get us fired / divorced, or
2. a total Yes, which will basically make us somebody’s slave.

If we can only take a moment to think, we’ll discover endless alternatives on what can be described as a “Spectrum of No/Yes”, filled with gentler forms of No, and any number of ways to say Yes with reservations.

In one session, for example, participants came up with three versions of, essentially, the same line:

a) “I’m going to think about that.”
b) “Let’s think about that.”
c) “Can I think about that?”

The first is the most robust, and self-controlled. The second is more collaborative. The third is framed as a request.

By taking a moment to think, and check our instincts, we can usually find a Yes, or No, that feels right.

And if circumstances change, you can change your mind.


The Zones of No and Yes

What underlies our decision to say No, or Yes? In each case, there are benefits and downsides.

As this image shows, saying No can keep you safe from the unknown, but it can (therefore?) also be boring.


No and Yes, over Time

Over time, we all move from saying No to saying Yes. If we don’t follow our instinct, and we say something that doesn’t feel right, it can quickly become exhausting.

This image shows three (imaginary) people’s experience of saying No and Yes over time. One is represented by a Golden line. Another by Silver. Another in Black.

What do you suppose is the experience of the three imaginary people?

There’s no correct answer to that question.

For what it’s worth, it looks to me like the person represented by the Silver line is making quite sudden and emphatic choices and switching regularly between No and Yes, whereas Gold is slower to change, and Black makes lots of changes but less dramatically.

Does one of them look more like your own life, recently?


Some Words To Try

If you’re struggling, these lines might help. To be clear: the specific wording may not feel right for you. But the general idea in each case can be modified to suit most situations.

“Am I allowed to say No…?”

“Can you help me to find a way to say ‘Yes’?”


Sorry, this workshop is finished.

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