La Repubblica

Stavolta ti dico NO - This time you say NO

Seven Questions

My interview with the journalist, Daniele Castellani Perelli, was extensive, so I have included the full transcript below. In it, I answered seven questions:

  1. Judith Sills, on the last issue of Psychology Today, writes about the “Power of No!”: “Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free”. Do you agree that “No” is rarely celebrated and we should reconsider it?
  2. What brings us to say so often “yes”?
  3. Do we say more often “yes” than some decades ago?
  4. Does the economic crisis push people to say always more “yes”?
  5. Is it more peculiar of women or men?
  6. Do you have a suggestion or an exercise for people who always say “yes”?
  7. Can you name a couple of famous people who are/were able to say No, and they were right.

Here is the full interview

Judith Sills, on the last issue of Psychology Today, writes about the “Power of No!”: “Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free”.

Do you agree that “No” is rarely celebrated and we should reconsider it?

I think Judith Sills is absolutely right. No is the ultimate statement of your self-control and autonomy: done properly, as a Noble Objection, it allows you to make careful choices and do so in a respectful way. A lot of people are worried that they don’t have enough time: it is the wrong thing to be concerned about. The right thing to ask yourself is �what is the most important thing I could be doing with the time I have? When you have mastered time management, all that is left is being selective about what you do. No is the tool for exercising that choice.

What brings us to say so often “yes”?

There are lots of reasons, but one of the main ones is our own personal history -�the experiences we have had. Most people will notice that most of the successes they have had at the early stages of their lives and their careers stem from saying yes, and then delivering on their commitments. It is no surprise that, if this strategy works for us, we find it hard to abandon it for a more nuanced strategy of choosing to say yes sometimes and no at others. Another big reason why we say yes so often is that it is positive and people like other people who are positive. No, on the other hand, is negative and we worry, rightly, that people won’t like or even respect us if we are negative. That’s why I transformed no (no in English) into a positive, by re-framing NO as an acronym that stands for Noble Objection. A Noble Objection is positive: it is a positive decision to decline an opportunity, because it is not the right opportunity or because other things you could be doing with your time are more valuable still.

Do we say more often “yes” than some decades ago?

I don’t know of any research here, but two things strike me. For any individual reading this, as their career progresses, thy will need to start saying no more often. I used to think, when I started my career, that big bosses had less to do and that we at the bottom ended up with the longest To Do lists. I was wrong. As I progressed into senior management, my To Do list grew ever longer. I realised that the successful people at the top of organisations don’t have less to do: they are better at choosing which things to neglect, and at saying no. The other thing that strikes me is that there seems to be more to do now: more media to review, more games to play, more information to process, more contacts to keep up. The internet and social media in particular have created an ‘always on’ mindset. It seems harder to say no to their constant demands, but the importance of doing so is growing. Indeed, there are a number of books hitting the bookstores at the moment, like Daniel Goleman’s ‘Focus’ that are making this very point. I wish I’d got in early enough and written one of them!

Does the economic crisis push people to say always more “yes”?

I think what is salient about the economic crisis is the fear it creates in people. They become fearful of the consequences of saying no. I think companies and public authorities need to wake up to the dangers of this mindset. If your staff are afraid to say no, then what level of thinking is going into their decisions about what to do? The results are not just the risk of doing something foolish, but of not devoting enough time to doing what is most important, because people are wasting time on too many unimportant things that they are afraid to say no to. Organisations need to empower staff, from senior management to the shop floor, to use their judgement and discuss priorities.

Is it more peculiar of women or men?

Fear of saying no, fear of being thought awkward, unambitious or negative is not about whether you are a man or a woman, it is about your sense of power. Therefore, we have to ask whether empowerment, powerlessness and dominance are gender based -�and of course the answer is yes, they are, everywhere. If a woman or a man feels they are pressured into saying yes, then this is a result of real or perceived social or cultural pressures. Having said all of that, there are definitely some clear social and cultural pressures on women in European societies that do result in women saying no rather less often than they know they should. Here are some examples:

Super-woman

Super-woman needs to show her strength, so will fear that saying ‘no’ is a sign of weakness. She is calm in a crisis and hates attention, so will hate to ask for help. Saying ‘no’ means confrontation -�perhaps it is easier to say ‘yes’ and just get on with it�- until super-woman breaks down. What Super-woman really needs is to know that making choices for herself is not a sign of weakness -�it is okay to be absolutely her own woman. Caring-woman Caring woman needs to look after others and daren’t say ‘no’ for fear it will hurt them. She can’t stand feeling criticised, and saying ‘no’ would open up the risk of reproach, so perhaps it is better to say ‘yes’. It seems the one person caring-woman will neglect is herself. So sometimes, Caring-woman needs to take the time off to please herself and put her own feelings first. If she doesn’t, then eventually she will run out of care to give.

Perfect-woman

Perfect-woman has to get things right. She is organised and thoroughly responsible. So saying ‘no’ can seem like a breach of that responsibility and a sign she is not as perfect as she hopes. Since she can be self-critical at times, saying�’yes’ means there is no risk, until by over-committing, she one day lets herself down. Perfect-woman needs to believe that she is good enough as she is, with no need to prove herself to anyone. Saying ‘no’ without a ‘but’ is the perfect way take control.

Busy-woman

Rebellious and creative, busy-woman only feels good if she is constantly trying hard to do more and more to balance her career and her family. She takes on lots, says ‘yes’ happily, and then gets bored and leaves things unfinished.�’No’ rarely crosses busy-woman’s mind, but she is often so disorganised she forgets her ‘yes’ until the last moment. Busy-woman will get more done when she takes her time and focuses on the few things that are really important. Too much busyness creates a veneer of activity, hiding a rotten layer of rushed work, hurried relationships and unsatisfying results.

Do you have a suggestion or an exercise for people who always say “yes”?

List the things you did last week, which you could have said no to instead. To help you, think about these questions.

  • What things did you do last week that had no value for you or the person who asked you to do it?
  • What things did you do last week that could equally well have been done by somebody else? (Perhaps even done better)
  • What things did you do last week that you knew you shouldn’t have taken on the moment you said ‘yes’?
  • What things did you do last week that made you feel angry, bitter or resentful of the imposition?
  • What things did you do last week that turned out to be a complete waste of your time?
  • What things did you do last week that caused you more stress, anxiety or hassle than they were worth?
  • What things did you do last week that were just to please someone, to stop them hassling you, or because you feared they wouldn’t like you if you said ‘no’?
  • What things did you do last week that stopped you doing something more important?

Can you name a couple of famous people who are/were able to say No, and they were right. First, we need to avoid politics: it is a minefield. But there is one controversial political figure who got it absolutely right: Henry Kissinger. He said:

‘Don’t be too ambitious.
Do the most important thing you can think of doing every year and your career will take care of itself.’

This level of focus will bring you greater success than pursuing a dozen different opportunities and not having the time or energy to give your best work to any of them. Actors’ careers will give good examples of the power of no. Your readers will know of Italian actors who have said yes to every opportunity and seen their careers decline a promising start, while others have been far more careful about the roles they chose, and risen as a result. Steve Jobs was a great example of this. After being sacked from his own company, Apple, he was invited to return when the business was failing. His first act was to cut off all investment in the majority of Apple’s product line and developing initiatives. By saying no to so much, he was able to say a big YES to a few products that he wanted to see succeed -�and one was the iPod. Apple still has a very small product range, but a very big customer base.

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