Getting comfortable with “No.”

Here are some teachings I’ve heard and read about the word “No.”

“‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

“Let your ‘Yes’ mean Yes and your ‘No’ mean No.”

“To say ‘No’ to you is a most loving act.  It is me teaching you about me, letting you know what I am capable of, what I am willing to do, what my boundaries are.  It is because I care about you that I am telling you my truth [by saying ‘No.’]”

Like conflict, anger and other difficult conversations in which we have the opportunity to share our truth, ‘No’ can be a path to bringing our relationship closer.  This is especially true when we’re open to understanding the person more deeply by our willingness to accept their ‘No.’

It intrigues me that we don’t question ‘Yes’ responses the way we question a ‘No.’  If we hear a ‘Yes’ response, that tends to be the end of the interchange.  We assume they agree so we’re pretty much done.

I think there’s more at work, however.  For instance, we (perhaps unconsciously) assume that if they are saying ‘Yes’ to our question, they are saying ‘Yes’ to us.  It’s as if we hear them implicitly saying that they are like us, that they like us, and that we can feel safe and comfortable with them.  We feel they’re telling us that we’re on the same team, that we’re cut from the same cloth, that we are “the same.”

But notice the marked difference when we hear a ‘No.’  What’s your first reaction when you hear ‘No’?  I imagine that it’s ‘Why?’ And what’s behind the ‘Why?’ Perhaps we feel slightly defensive, or devalued, or somehow pushed away from the person.  It’s as if ‘Yes’ brings a subtle feeling of same and safety and closeness, but “No” brings a feeling of different and distant, and maybe even dangerous.

I asked two psychotherapist friends about this, and they confirmed this idea.  If I hear ‘Yes,’ it feels like you and I are in agreement, we’re compatible, we think and feel alike, we have the same attention, intention, focus, and belief about the situation.  But when I hear ‘No,’ I unconsciously hear you saying you don’t like me.

Wow, imagine the strain on our relationships if each time we hear a ‘No’ we feel the relationship is under threat?  What if the truth might simply be “I can’t right now,” or “I don’t want any,” or “I don’t agree with that.”  Notice that none of those simple explanations mean anything about our relationship, yet so often we interpret the single word as an unspoken message about us.

This brings me back to the idea of asking ‘Why?’ when we hear ‘No’ or ‘Yes.’  Getting clarity on the other person’s response is always be important because we can only know the other person’s truth when we ask.  Otherwise we are only left with our assumptions and the (unconscious and conscious) stories we make up to explain their answer.

So here’s a radical experiment.  Next time you ask someone a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question, notice what you feel when they say their answer.  Then, regardless if it’s ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’  say to them, “I’m wanting to understand you better.   Can you help me understand why you said [Yes or No]?”

They may wonder why you’re asking, and you can simply reiterate that you could assume to know what they meant.  But you really would like to know and understand them better, so you’d prefer they tell you.  And then be prepared to listen without judgment, without presumption, without your own filters.  Just listen and learn.  And be sure to thank them for teaching you about them.  Then see if you feel differently, even after you’ve heard ‘No.’

I’m open to hearing your thoughts.

Adele Cox, MA, CMT
Youniversoul Health & Wellness
2305 Ashby Avenue
Berkeley, CA  94705