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The Power of 'no'

‘No’ is such an interesting word. It is one of the first words that children learn, and they are drawn to its power. It is even one of the first words that kids learn to spell (along with poo and butt in our house). I have never met a toddler who had a hard time saying, ‘no’, but I know many adults who find the word to be a herculean effort. What happens to us that makes a word that is easily and readily accessible to any two year old, hard for a fully grown person?

When I first thought about it, I wondered if people were afraid of the power of the word because they didn’t always know what they wanted. But, then I thought about some of the teachers at my school, who are frustrated with unnecessary interruptions in their classrooms while they are trying to teach - those people definitely know what they want. But they don`t take action to get it. They don`t say, ‘no’ to the disruption even when it is within their power and their right to do so.

Maybe, it’s just because humans are pack animals and as pack animals we are worried about our place in the pack. We are worried about challenging the power of others and being rejected, or, that we might have to lead if we show too much initiative.

Of course, over the course of my life I have known many people who have had a challenging relationship with the word, ‘no’, but somehow I had never really thought about it until last week. Last week, I received a lovely unexpected email from a professor that I had in university. In her email, she mentioned her difficult relationship with the word ‘no’, and I was shocked. This is a woman who has had a successful career as a journalist, author and professor, I remember her as a straight forward and motivating teacher. I think of her as the Professor Minerva McGonagall of my school days and yet this formidable woman is uncomfortable with the word ‘no’.

I said to my wife, “if she has a problem with saying the word ‘no’, maybe everybody does.”

And she answered flatly, “well you sure don’t.”

And she’s right.

So, I began to wonder, what’s wrong with me? Why am I missing this programming that is a part of the learning of so many people that I know and love? I mean there are times when I feel awkward or apprehensive about saying, ‘no’, but not enough that it stops me from using it. I decided I needed to understand this programming more, I wanted to know what people thought about the word, ‘no’ and why they tried to avoid it.

Throughout the week I talked to people I met about the power of the word, ‘no’. It was not a large scientific study (all of the people I talked to are people who identify as female, and live in Winnipeg), but I did find all the answers remarkably similar. Everyone I talked to expressed that they thought that it was healthy to say, ‘no’. Each and every person mentioned either healthy boundaries, self-confidence or self-worth as being part of the power of the word ‘no’. Most said they wished that they were better at saying it.

Then, I asked what was stopping them? The answers again were pretty uniform. Not liking to disappoint people, perceiving themselves are nurturing or a caregiver, being afraid of conflict and feeling guilty, were the answers I got.

I looked at all these answers I’d been given and then thought again about myself (does blogging make one narcissistic?) and I wondered again about my usage of the word ‘no’. I consider myself a caregiver at work and at home, but for me, part of a being a caregiver is teaching boundaries and limits. For me, saying, ‘no’ is about being honest and authentic. I like communication that is straight forward. I say what I mean because I want other people to do the same. If I ask you to help me with something, I don’t want to have to measure your ‘yes’ to weigh out the guilt and resentment. I don’t want you to do something for me, or agree with me because you are afraid of conflict, feeling guilty, being a nurturing or afraid to disappoint, I want you to do it because it is honestly what you think or believe.

When I started to look at studies on saying, ‘no’ (and believe me, there are a lot!), I noticed that there was a definite gender based trend to the topics and the research. In general women have a harder time saying ‘no’ than men. Every study I looked at found a gender bias. The bottom line of what I was reading said that the people who can say ‘no’ are the people who have power in society. The gender gap in pay equity can be blamed on women’s inability to say, ‘no’ according to a Forbes magazine article. There were articles empowering women to be able to say no when they are dating. There is an entire website called The No Project that exists to, “empower women to say no, so that they can say yes when it matters.” The power and value of ‘no’ isn`t just felt at an interpersonal level, it can be the difference between making your goals and sitting stuck.

It makes sense in our patriarchal society that women are conditioned to shy away from the word ‘no’. But, another part of the problem which I found understated in some of the articles that I read is people’s ability to hear and respond to the word ‘no’. Women globally experience an insane amount of violence and it is not surprising that some of them give up on saying ‘no’ because nobody is listening. In the fast-paced cyberworld where we live, fewer and fewer people are taking the time to really stop and listen. Maybe if we valued each other’s words and experiences more, it would become easier for people to express what they really felt.

Then I wonder, if the usage of the word ‘no’ is largely affected by gender, what about non-binary people? Is the reason that I am comfortable with the word ‘no’ because I spent most of the first eleven years of my life as a boy? Is it about gender or about the perception of gender roles? After thinking about the word ‘no’ for a week, I find I have many more questions than I have answers.

‘No’ and ‘Yes’ can both be powerful words, but only when they are both used. As soon as you stop using one, the other is virtually rendered meaningless. Isn’t that always the way with opposites? There is no light without dark, if you had never felt cold, hot would have no meaning. If you avoid saying, ‘no’, then what is the value of your ‘yes’?

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