“The words a person uses, and the actual thoughts behind them, may be poles apart.”  — Paramahansa Yogananda

What do you hear when you hear the word no?

Do you think of turning someone away? Feel you’re being dismissive, or dismissed? Do you feel selfish? Guilty? All of the above? None of the above?

If we all carry relationships with us to words, your relationship to no might be a tricky one. No is a word we use all the time, of course, but it can carry a hundred meanings beyond its two letters. As Yogananda said, words can imply countless things depending on what thoughts are behind it–including how we understand the word, ourselves.

No, of course, doesn’t just indicate a negative response in our everyday communication–the word carries a lot of negative connotations, too.

No can mean can’t, would-but-could, turning someone down, shutting an idea out, risking someone else’s resentment, causing a misunderstanding, possibly closing someone off or sounding disagreeable, or being viewed as “bitchy” or “bossy” or “too intense.”

What I want to discuss today is what problems arise when we misuse and under-utilize our nos. 

The reason?

No may be the most important word for living your one life to the fullest.

The Case for ‘No’

Let me confess something to you. I’m a big fan of yes.

For years, I’ve read friends who write about the power of no and how important no is for living your life to the fullest. But the “positive guy” in me wanted to resist this concept at first.

Who wants to live their lives like that? I would think to myself, Saying no, instead of yes? Living through decisions that are negative?

What I’ve learned is that our Nos dictate just as much as our Yesses–because our yesses and nos are inextricably bound. It’s because we don’t have all the time in the world. We only have one life to live. We can’t choose everything, all at once. We have to prioritize. Sort, sieve, scan, choose and commit. Every yes is a no elsewhere, and every no means a yes somewhere else.

There are 7 big reasons why I believe no can help us live better, every day.

1. No is a way to preserve your space and protect your energy. Ever feel like you’re spread way too thin? Have you ever gotten into a rut with over-committing to everyone, and under-committing to yourself? How about feeling like your schedule, preference and desires are falling secondary to someone else’s? No is the simplest and most direct way to start preserving your precious time, energy and space.

2. No is how you allocate your attention. Think about it. You already say no to lots of things when you’re trying to focus, buckle down or feel productive. “No to Facebook, I’m trying to write!” “No to staring into my phone at dinner, this beautiful face across from me deserves full attention!” We make a lot of passive decisions to exercise our no muscles. So, you already innately know how to say no. How can you verbalize it? How can you practice putting your voice to no?

3. No is a tool for choosing your priorities; not having them chosen for you. Who’s to tell you what your biggest priorities are, but you?

4. No is trusting yourself. No is standing up for You. Whether you’re turning down that piece of chocolate cake to stick to your health goals, or saying no to another beer because you know you have to drive home later, you have to stand by your nos in order to stand up for yourself.  No is a practice in trust, and a source of self-determining power. Say no for YOU.

5. No is trusting others (as you hope to be trusted by them).

So, someone tells you no. Gasp! Treachery! Blasphemy!

Okay, okay. I guess we ought to practice what we preach.

If you’re committed and practicing saying no more, you have to trust loved ones, friends and peers to have their own best interests in mind, even when they’re the ones telling you no.

If you think about it, accepting someone else’s nos is a quiet, personal practice in empathy, compassion and understanding. Whenever you hear “No,” tune in to yourself and listen. Is your reaction to take offense? Are you upset? What if it’s not about you, at all?

There will be plenty of times when your own nos aren’t personal–you say no so that you can take care of yourself. You are your greatest priority. Do your part to honor others when you hear no. Trust ’em. They’re just finding their way and managing time, attention and energy. Chances are good that it’s not about you at all.

6. Whenever you say Yes, somewhere else you’re saying No.

Think about it. If you don’t have all the time in the world, then every time you tell someone Yes, it’s also implied that you’re telling someone No. It’s not about insulting or hurting someone’s feelings, clearly–even if it’s passive or implied, the truth is that every Yes means another “No” — maybe five Nos, or ten Nos. Every Yes to something means Nos to other things.

If time = limited, then your choices = everything.

7. When you say No, you can say Yes to something else.

Here’s another way to think about the above point. No can be your liberation. A two-letter words that frees you to be.

Consider a time when saying Yes to something or someone too quickly felt like you were putting a burden on yourself. Oops. I spoke to soon. Indeed, saying Yes can put you in a squeeze. Make you feel anxious. Tense. Overwhelmed. Crumbling. Like you’re being pulled in a hundred directions.

That’s why your Nos carry so much weight. We’re talking about your self-preservation here: alleviating the burdens of guilt and anxiety that you don’t deserve. We’re hard-wired by our culture to be in constant motion–to overextend ourselves. We assume that being on a constant hustle will spell good things, always. Success. Wealth. Fame. Acclaim. Meaning. Like, as if, if we stop hustling nonstop that we may well disappear altogether. Cease to exist. We’ll be forgotten. Poof.

7 Ways to Say ‘No’ Without Sounding Selfish, Negative, or Dismissive

So, how do you say no? Here’s what I take into consideration, and how I try to offer my nos in ways that don’t sound selfish, negative or dismissive.

After all, my nos are my choices and mine alone, but as a compassionate communicator it matters to me to share my decisions and beliefs clearly–if only to offer others the opportunity to understand my perspective.

1) Understand why it’s a no. You may not understand it right away, but there is an underlying necessity, obligation, priority. It’s a why, not a what. 

2) Consider who’s asking, inviting, or requesting your yes. Seriously. Who’s asking? Is it your girlfriend? Spouse? A parent, or a your best friend from college? A peer in some professional capacity? Give deep consideration to who is asking for your yes, and use your brain (and heart) to cater your response appropriately.

3) Offer a positive first. Just because no seems negative doesn’t mean your response needs to be a burden of negativity, or guilt, or sadness. You can express big gratitude. You can celebrate the joy of simply hearing from this person (maybe it’s been a while). You could say Thank you. Or, You’re awesome. And, I really appreciate the invitation. Even, Thank you so much for thinking of me. 

An eloquently-positioned no to follow wouldn’t sound so bad now, would it?

4) Apologize, if you want to. Just don’t sound too guilty. You shouldn’t feel guilty for saying no, but if you do feel like you want to apologize for having to turn down an offer or invitation, mean it–just don’t sound too sorry. Why, is because “OMG I’m so so so sorry” when turning down an invitation to coffee sounds a bit much, don’t you think?

Let the energy of your response match the energy of the invitation.

5) Communicate your reasoning. In other words, explain! And, be honest. Even if it’s plain and simple. “I need some personal time. I feel a bit run down.” Sure, some people can tend to take things a bit too personally (I know you know who I’m talking about), but when you are able to communicate your reasoning (especially when it’s the truth) you’re asking someone to lend you their understanding. So, we’re actually offering a bond of trust.

no could strengthen the bond of your relationship!

Besides, honesty is better than the alternative, making up a lie. Lying means you have to remember the lie in order to maintain the lie. That’s way, way too much work. Besides, we’re exercising our nos here so that we can free up our time, attention and energy.

So, be honest, and communicate why. Use no as your liberator. Don’t fall on an easy crutch (lying), because it’s making hollow excuses for your nos.

6) Consider suggesting an alternative. If you want to, or need to. Because your no loses it’s power if you’re just flexing to procrastinate, delay or avoid an obligation that you need to take care of. Don’t feel obligated to suggest an alternative if it doesn’t serve you. If it’s a simple matter of conflicting schedule, or you need to preserve your time and energy, you might offer a creative solution that honors the invitee while protecting yourself, like, “My schedule is a bit too hectic for me to meet you for lunch today. Can we speak on the phone for a half hour instead?” or “Let’s try for next week.” 

7) Show that you care. Simple. Just show that you care. Use your words. Express yourself. Be considerate. Ask for understanding. Trust the one with whom you’re communicating. They deserve that. As you do.

So, how will you reinterpret your nos?

How will you utilize the power of the word?

Do you need your nos to be freeing and liberating?

Are your nos to take the form of self-empowerment and self-trust?

Do you feel called for no to help you channel your energy? Re-prioritize your life? Be concise and surefooted with your decisions?

How about sifting your priorities? Freeing your schedule? Or inviting new opportunities in?


* Hat-tip to my friend Sarah Peck for this image from her blog, ItStartsWith.com.

No can be your liberator.

Trust yourself. Trust no.

If you’re still not convinced that your nos matter, remember this:

Your time is limited. You only one chance to live your life.

Can you say yes less to others’ requests if it means you get to live more on your own terms, and by your own choosing?

Dare to say no more to what you don’t want. Open yourself to say yes more to what you do want.

The journey continues, one yes or no at a time. :)