Saying No

Oct 15 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Saying no is one of those abilities that keep coming up in my discussions with colleagues and trainees and even friends of my cohort. One reasons it keeps coming up, I suspect, is because it is just so damn hard. It's still hard for me in my blue-haired dotage. Although, to be fair, as I marvel and delight in the strength of younger women, I think that socialization of women has changed  sufficiently that they will have internal resources I never will.

Anyway, I stumbled across this article by Greg McKeown from the Harvard Business Review on setting priorities in life, aka saying no. The article  is well written, in the way that we all wish could craft. Initial vignette about famous (and mostly) revered person who Did The Right Thing, check. Story about how more humble author didn't get it right, but had revelation that caused introspection about specific event, check. Generalization of results of revelation to specific actions that others can follow. Check.

The article starts with a "charming" story about Gandhi and his grandson, how Gandhi made time for his grandson. I don't want to get into arguments about Gandhi and his relationships with  women and whether he would have done the same for a granddaughter. Just google Gandhi and Women and you can read about it yourself. I have issues with Gandhi. He did good, but as are all of us, he was a flawed human being.

it is the latter two parts of McKeown's article that are not just strong, but are applicable beyond the immediate situation. That situation, about going to work right after his child was born, is one that will ring true for women. His examination of what went wrong is good:

First, I allowed social awkwardness to trump making the right decision. I wasn’t forced to attend the meeting. Instead, I was so anxious to please that even awkward silent pauses on the phone were too much for me...

Second, I believed that “I had to make this work.” Logically, I knew I had a choice, but emotionally, I felt that I had no choice...

I've certainly felt these things. It's not just when your child is born, although that is a strong and arresting point. It's many many other things happening to us all the time. The article gets even more useful in the advice. Here are his  points:

First, separate the decision from the relationship. Sometimes these seem so interconnected, we forget there are two different questions we need to answer.

I had to read this twice to get it.  This means separating the specific issue on the table ( being asked "will you do this?") from the person or entity the person represents who is doing the asking. Sometimes the larger entity is spoken ("I'm asking you to do this for the good of the college") and sometimes it's implied (the awkward silences he refers to above).

His immediate advice is:

By deliberately dividing these questions, we can make a more conscious choice. Answer the question, “What is the right decision?” and then “How can I communicate this as kindly as possible?”

Excellent, excellent. In general, I have almost always found that breaking complex things down into smaller bits, be it science content or interpersonal interactions at work is helpful to unknotting difficult problems. I think for men to think about "kindly" is very different than women. I would say "politely" and not "kindly", but you get the idea. You don't have to be "kind" to anyone in the professional arena. Polite. Yes. Honorable. Transparent. Honest. Kind? Nope. On to his next point:

Second, watch your language. Every time we say, “I have to take this call” or “I have to send this piece of work off” or “I have to go to this client meeting,” we are assuming that previous commitments are nonnegotiable.

This is the place where we take on someone else's priorities. This is being honest with yourself about the activity or task under consideration. Here is some absolutely excellent advice:

Every time you use the phrase “I have to” over the next week, stop and replace it with “I choose to.” It can feel a little odd at first — and in some cases it can even be gut-wrenching (if we are choosing the wrong priority). But ultimately, using this language reminds us that we are making choices, which enables us to make a different choice.

I think that anything that increases our ability to choose for ourselves is a good thing. I was about to write "choice is a double bladed sword" but its more like a pair of 12-sided dice. Choice means taking responsibility when stuff goes wrong. It's owning up to what you did. It also means doors open, so fast and so many that its hard to choose. I have always despised the research that says "consumers have too many choices and it makes it hard, therefore let's limit the choices to make it easier for them". I do not want anyone making it easier in this way for me. Who the hell is the "us" in the "let's" of that idea? One of the downsides of choice is that you have to sort through the options, and sometimes there just isn't enough time to do that in the way that you want. The process and multiplicity of choices can be hard and a downside, but its a glorious option, too, and one I don't want to lose.


5 responses so far

  • chall says:

    I love the " I think for men to think about "kindly" is very different than women. I would say "politely" and not "kindly", but you get the idea. You don't have to be "kind" to anyone in the professional arena. Polite. Yes. Honorable. Transparent. Honest. Kind? Nope."

    I think this is great suggestions and reminders. There are always choices. Even if I don't like it, I think it's important to remember that I as a worker have a responsibility in this - to let my peers and boss know when things are adding up and it's not part of the "work week" to fix.

    Since I'm in a position where I am support, saying No isn't really an option as much if you want to keep the engagement with collaborators or bosses. My way around this is to show a list of things that "we've decided that are doing" and asking - which is priority A, B and C and then chug through them in order and the things that are constantly low priority.... well they don't happen as much.

    I loathe that part of it, and have a little struggle with "low priority, low stress" things I do every so often because they are important to me and my well being, but overall - it's been a great way for me to keep on track with what is considered important and choices to do.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm not sure how this could possibly apply to people on the lower rungs of any organization. How am I supposed to say no to my graduate advisor or my postdoc advisor? Or, as TT faculty, to that senior member of the dept. or my chair? Of course, I'm not talking about requests to do a person's laundry or walk their dog, but the "little things" that one is often asked to do (which inevitably add up) with no foreseeable benefit to oneself. It seems to me that who is asking is very much a part of the equation and should not be separated from the request.

    There are some people who are mature enough to hear the word, "no," and not take it personally. But I have often been surprised at the number of middle-aged men (sorry, for me it's been mostly men) who can be incredibly immature and downright petty. Saying no to certain people carries consequences, and to pretend there will be no ramifications because you "did the right thing" is dangerous. Very few people are in a position where that -- doing the right thing -- is the only question that matters, or even matters most. I hope to get there one day. But before I do ... I have to be very careful about who I say no to.

    • Chall says:

      It helps to know how to say "no" without actually saying the word. This softens the blow and can help with the argument. this also makes it harder for someone who isn't your direct supervisor to give you an order, since you're not saying yes or not straight but do a little more avoidance.

      At least I've found this helpful in my job where I mainly cater to faculty...

    • potnia theron says:

      this is a very real problem. and it is not right that the burden of dealing with people who have power in your life but behave poorly falls on your shoulders. BUT... there are ways to do this. Yes. you have to be careful. And pick your battles. But it is possible.

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