The Power Of No, Or Rather ‘No, Thank You’

Photo credit: Esther Tuttle

Powerful life lessons can stay with us for decades. Many years ago, I watched a motivational speaker give a passionate, rousing talk on the importance of saying yes. Of course, he was talking about having a positive attitude, being open to new ideas and taking risks. As an outgoing person with a so-called ‘sunny disposition’, his message made perfect sense at the time. Grab the opportunities that life has in store, is a lesson we all hear from a young age.

It would be many years later, as a married, working mom-of-two children (born 16 months apart), while juggling an adrenalin-fuelled radio news career with a life coaching passion, that I would learn to understand the power and impact of sometimes learning to say no.

The Power of No

It’s not easy being a people-pleaser! As a university student in Cape Town, I’d often cancel my plans to listen to a friend lament the latest boyfriend bust-up, (only for her to rekindle the relationship days later). As a young journalist, it didn’t occur to me to say no to the senior reporter who’d asked me to stand in for them – yet again – so they could enjoy a long weekend.

It would be years later, when I would discover three important things happen when you set boundaries with people who have learnt how readily available you are for them at a moment’s notice:

They simply go ahead and make another plan.
They learn to respect your time and your priorities.
You feel stronger, more empowered and frankly, lighter.

Yes, it’s comforting to know that the world continues to spin on its axis, even after you’ve turned down a speaking gig at a men’s only poker evening in a casino. But in more serious cases, how do you know if someone genuinely needs your help?

Listen to your gut

It simply comes down to trusting your gut. In my experience, all good decisions and certainly all excellent decisions, are made when you listen to your instincts. As a woman in my twenties, I simply believed any person who said they ‘needed’ my time, advice or a quick shift swap in the newsroom. On some level, it fuels your young ego when you are ‘needed’ for pressing matters of the heart or urgent office changes, and in truth, saying no simply isn’t always a comfortable or easy option! But, with the gift of experience and an ability to trust one’s gut instincts, it becomes a lot easier to make the distinction between someone who is genuinely seeking help and guidance and someone who simply takes advantage of other people, because they know the person would never dream of saying no.

The Power of ’No, thank you.’

In recent months, I’ve been privileged to spend time with people from a range of places across the globe – Brazil, France, America, England, Israel, Turkey and Russia. The experience has re-affirmed my long held belief that South Africans are amongst one of the most well-mannered, polite nations in the world. (This is not a result of a scientific poll, it’s simply a gut instinct!) So, it may not be necessary to add that when saying no to a request or scenario that simply doesn’t feel right, there is no need to be rude. There is no shame in adding the words ‘thank you’ at the end of a sentence. I truly believe being consistently polite is not a weakness, no matter where you are in the world!

Of course, the scenarios that may have plagued a carefree student or a work intern are very different from some of the far more worrying, far-reaching examples one sees as a life coach. In several cases, women have shared how they knew before they walked down the aisle, that the relationship wasn’t right, but they felt it was too late to say no to their future husband, their families, and their communities. In other cases, women and men haven’t wanted to end their unhappy long-term relationships because they felt they were letting other people down. Their happiness wasn’t their priority. Leaving the comfort and familiarity of your home town to start a-fresh in a new city or country can be exciting and terrifying, as one in effect says ‘no to what you know’. Turning down a promotion in your predictable, corporate work environment to follow your passion and risk starting out on your own also takes enormous courage.

All these examples are complicated scenarios with far reaching consequences – the choices for each person will obviously vary. What is right for one person, is certainly not always the answer for another. What is always important though, is trusting your own instincts when making that decision.

Once we learn to set boundaries and trust our gut, it becomes a lot easier to know when to say yes and when to say no, thank you …

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