Say ‘No’ More: The Art of Saying ‘No’

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

On 12.12, She Loves Data held a flagship event called ‘Say “No” More: The Art of Saying “No”. This is a response to the challenges faced by the community when we — especially women — struggle to say “No” to work requests (fear of disappointing and giving a bad impression to a colleague), due to culture (considered as bad manners and disobedient, be pleasant), in a relationship (fear of offending, eroding relationships, will make friend/family feel rejected or take it as a personal affront.), and so on.

We received insights on why we should say no what’s making it hard for us to say no uncovering more on the mental psychology side from Sha-En Yeo MAPP of Happiness Scientists, saying no in professional corporate settings and practical tips that we can use to say no from Uma Thana Balasingam of VMware, and explore more about the cultural side considerations, especially in Southeast Asia on saying no from Ken Ratri Iswari. Here are the details.

How about ‘No’?

Sha-En reminded us that when we were little it was easier to say no. I nod the hardest and remember how a kid refuses to eat vegetables or still wants to play and refuses to sleep. Unlike when we grow up, if we say no too often it almost comes across as being negative over and over again. From the mental psychology side, our brains are very sensitive to negativity. It’s called negativity bias, which means that we respond more and have a greater reaction towards negative things than positive because it’s a protective mechanism.

In practice, for example in corporate settings, Uma said that society expects women to be communal, helpful, warm, agreeable, amenable, and expected to say yes. So when women say no to office housework, we were penalized. Ken also brought the same thing from a cultural perspective. She mentioned Javanese philosophy, nrimo ing pandum (to accept the situation; obey) often makes Javanese people — like her too — rarely or never say ‘No’ and always obey all kinds of requests even though sometimes it is against their conscience. For sure, the cultural background has a big role in shaping a person or community. Personally, as a Javanese, I understand this well because I also grew up with the same cultural values.

How to properly say ‘No’?

Uma told a story of when she was asked to cover for her coworker and take charge of a project. However, Uma had her hands full and couldn’t take on this project, and her boss needed to be made aware of this. To handle this situation, Uma asked “How do you propose that I do that? How much?” — not rejecting, not accepting — and this made the boss pause and think, and helped him to understand what it was like to be in Uma’s shoes. I’ll be trying this strategy where I’ll ask “how” the next time I’m faced with similar situations. Also, I will try Anjali’s negotiation method — ‘say yes to the role, but no for the work hours’ — just in case I will find an intersection between family and career.

But maybe it will be a different story if the situation is related to family or friendship. Sha-En suggests that we have to be authentic to express ourselves without feeling the fear of judgment. And we can do it smoothly by using the indirect technique. Because the problem with saying no is saying the word No, so we don’t have to say no. Because there are other ways to say no, like ‘maybe another time’, ‘ I’m not sure of it’, ‘let’s think about it’, and so on.

But there is a state of empathy imbalance when you have so much empathy for someone else but you’re not left for anything for yourself. Empathy is good for relationships, but empathy imbalance is a killer. It is important for us to make clear guidelines because sometimes people-especially our inner circle-are not aware of our situation. I will absolutely read the book Focus by David Goleman as suggested by Anjali to find out more about empathy imbalance.

Am I guilty?

Saying ‘No’ often brings regret and feelings of guilt. Ken had been in a tight corner when she had to make a decision for her company. But knowing the capacity, she bravely refused. Instead of just saying ‘No’, she tries to provide a solution by becoming a mediator to connect the client with other parties who are more competent.

After making the decision, she regretted it for some time. Still, a win-win solution actually, because her company still got the commission eventually. It is what it is! Sometimes good things happen and sometimes they don’t. When we know the boundaries and know our goals, it’s okay to say ‘No’. It’s called minimal identity, a term given by Derek Sivers. The suggestion on how to overcome the regret came from Uma, she had her AHA moment while reading Mark Manson’s book. She simply doesn’t give pay attention or simply ignore the regret by providing a fault tolerance limit.

But Sha-En suggests overcoming regret by analyzing the situation. It starts with retraining our brain — since our brain is very malleable. I love her suggestion that we have to think about the positive impact after we say ‘No’. It wasn’t easy at first, but we have to practice more. As mentioned in the Atomic Habits, ‘here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.’ I feel like I have so many options now, ready to say no and move on!

Ken also did a lot of practice after she found out that she had difficulty saying no. From the time she watched the Yes Man movie by Jim Carrey, she also found more courage to say no. As a movie lover, I would absolutely watch this!

In the end, I feel like I got so much insight and enlightenment. And my most valuable lesson from the discussion is that I can distinguish between generous and selfless.

“The difference between being generous and being selfless is not how much you help others but how much it costs you.

Selflessness is giving at your own expense. Generosity is giving without sacrificing yourself — setting boundaries on who, when, and how you help.”

Adam Grant

After an insightful discussion, we’ve got a movie to watch, we’ve got books to read. And we’ve got a couple of pages to write; for learning to say no and figure out what’s worthy of our yes.

It’s a well-spent weekend and I have zero regrets about joining this event. It’s a wrap and can’t wait for more events like this next year!!!



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Zahroh Khumayr

Zahroh Khumayr

part-time writer | full-time learner