Monday, August 12, 2019

The Power of "No"

I recently had a defining moment in an unlikely place: at a local establishment called The Riverbottom -- across the mostly dry Gila River from Florence, Arizona's huge state prison complex. It's a popular watering hole with amazingly good food. Most Friday nights, the Riverbottom is filled with a strange but congenial mix of real cowboys, heavily tattooed bikers and elderly locals in baseball caps and polo shirts, all enjoying the live entertainment.

I was there with my friend Marsha on a blisteringly hot July night to hear a former neighbor give one of his memorable concerts, Hank Gooday, a Superior Court judge, moonlights as a country/rock singer with an avid local following. His music inspires people to get up and dance, even in extreme heat.


Marsha and I noticed a local cowboy who was dancing with his wife and smiled at their obvious ease with each other. Minutes later, after his wife sat down to rest, he came over and asked Marsha to dance with him. I could hear her sigh, but she got up and took a turn around the dance area with him. Then he asked me. And I said "No." There was a shocked silence all around.

Taken aback by the looks I was getting from the other women at the table and his leaning in to me, I tried to be polite. "I appreciate your asking me," I said, smiling. "But no. I don't want to dance."

He didn't move.

I made quick excuses: "My knees hurt. I'm too old for this..."

He smiled. "My knees hurt, too, and you don't look a day over 53."

I laughed. "You silver tongued devil! But I still don't want to dance. Dance again with your lovely wife. I really enjoyed watching you two."

"We've been married for 37 years," he said with a shrug. "I can dance with her any time. Aw, come on, just one dance..."

"No," I said, folding my arms. "Thanks for asking, but no."

When he walked away, the other women at our table looked at me, shocked.

"I think you were very rude not to dance with him," one said.

"You hurt his feelings," another scolded.

Marsha was laughing. "You really did call him a silver-tongued devil!" she snickered. "But I don't understand. It wasn't a big deal just to dance one dance with him."

Yes it was... for me. Because it was expected that I'd say "Yes" despite my discomfort. Because women are supposed to be nice and comply, to politely go along with another's agenda.

Hell with that.

My disinclination to go with the flow appears to be trendy. There have been a number of recent articles in the New York Times and professional journals about our society's expectations that women will invariably agree to requests.

In her New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Bennet talked about starting a "No Club" which she described as "like a book club but for learning to say 'No'."

"There's a lot wrapped up in the word 'No' for women, beginning with the fact that women are expected to say 'Yes' and feel guilty when they don't," she wrote.

Vanessa Patrick, a professor in the business school at the University of Houston, noted in a recent study that "the ability to communicate 'No' really reflects that you are in the driver's seat of your own life. It gives you a sense of empowerment."

She found in her study that saying 'I don't' rather than 'I can't' establishes more conviction in one's decision.

Still, it's far from easy. Even when declining with courtesy and conviction, the blowback can be harsh.

I recently said "No" to a speaking engagement after the organizer made a major change in the approach to the subject. I had agreed to a serious discussion of some emotional issues we face as we age. But she was envisioning a light-hearted party of sorts with sweet treats. I told her that I wasn't comfortable with that and suggested that we find a compromise. Otherwise, I told her, I would be compelled to say "No". Her reply was vitriolic and she cancelled my appearance on the spot.

My overall reaction was relief. I'm just starting a new psychotherapy private practice in this area. While this talk wasn't meant to be a promotional gig, I still didn't want to do anything that might detract from my image as a mental health professional. There have been times in my professional past -- many years ago -- when I agreed to give a speech or endorse a product or a concept that I found embarrassing or that made me uneasy because I needed the money or the publicity or because I was afraid that my agent or others would be mad at me if I said "No."

No more.

It feels good when actions are more congruent with one's convictions and desires. Most of us have been raised to please, to give higher priority to another's wants or needs. There are, of course, times when that needs to happen. But there are many other times in our lives when saying "No" is necessary and empowering.

So what do we need to remember about saying "No"?

Saying "No" is living intentionally.  There is a freedom in giving yourself permission to say "No" to requests or options when you want or need to. Letting yourself be ruled by "should's" is incredibly stressful. There are times, of course, when we all have to do things we don't want to do or spend time with people we'd rather not be with for professional or personal reasons. But whenever possible, saying "No" can free us to live authentically and with considerably less stress.

"I knew I had finally grown up when I could say 'No' to others without being witchy," my late friend and former college roommate Cheryl Rennix once wrote me. "Those of us who grew up in a certain time, in the dysfunctional families of our early years, were obsessed with being nice, with pleasing others, with ignoring our own wants and needs. Being a real grown up means taking charge of your own life -- and that means feeling free to say 'No' sometimes."

Saying "No" doesn't have to be nasty. It can be kind but firm. Saying "No" with grace and kindness is an acquired skill that many of us -- including myself -- are still learning.

There is a learning curve, to be sure, in learning to be firm -- not leaving any room for negotiation -- while being gracious. You may find yourself sounding a bit like a pleasant broken record -- "I appreciate your offer, but that won't be possible for me." or "I won't be able to join you on that day, but thanks for thinking of me."

One of the most stressful -- and problematic -- ways to say "No" is the hedge ("Well, I might. I don't know. Let me think about it and get back to you..."). In this instance, you're stressed about possibly agreeing to something you really don't want to do and the other person feels caught in limbo.

Another habit those of us who struggle with "No" tend to have is the resentful agreement. People pleasers always say "Yes", but they often don't please themselves -- or others -- if their compliance is grudging. Or if they pull out of agreed upon plans at the last minute with a lame excuse. Saying "No" upfront can be kinder to yourself and to the other person as well.

Saying "No" doesn't mean negativity. It can mean being honest and true to your own convictions. It can mean leaving room in your life for positive events and people. It can mean building trust -- with your true intentions and actions closely aligned. Saying "No" when you must makes the times when you say "Yes" ever more meaningful.

I recently said "Yes" to another speaking engagement organized by the same person who disagreed so vehemently with my serious approach to what she had hoped would be a light-hearted event. She recently offered me another date and topic --a serious one. I said "Yes" immediately.

And if a man I know and love asked me to dance, I'd melt into his arms in a minute!