There comes a moment when you say “Don’t call
me,” and you finally mean it; when you return the
charming gift because you forced yourself to
acknowledge its invisible strings; when you turn
down the friend’s request for a helping hand, the
colleague’s plea for immediate advice, even the
teenage son’s expectation that dinner will appear
before him—all because you have goals of your own
from which you refuse to be deflected. Whether
trivial or tormenting, each of these moments is an
exercise in that poorly understood power, namely,
the power of No.
There’s a lot of talk, and a lot to be said, for the
power of Yes. Yes supports risk-taking, courage, and
an open-hearted approach to life whose grace cannot
be minimized. But No—a metal grate that slams shut
the window between one’s self and the influence of
others—is rarely celebrated. It’s a hidden power
because it is both easily misunderstood and difficult
It’s likely that we are unaware of the surge of
strength we draw from No because, in part, it is
easily confused with negativity. Either can involve a
turning away, a shake of the head, or a firm refusal.
But they are distinctly different psychological states.
Negativity is a chronic attitude, a pair of emotional
glasses through which some people get a cloudy
view of the world. Negativity expresses itself in a
whining perfectionism, a petulant discontent, or risk-
averse naysaying. It’s an energy sapper. Negative
people may douse the enthusiasm of others, but
rarely inspire them to action. Negativity certainly
ensures that you will not be pleased. You will also not
Where negativity is an ongoing attitude, No is a
moment of clear choice. It announces, however
indirectly, something affirmative about you. “I will
not sign”—because that is not my truth. “I will not
join your committee, help with your kids, review your
project”—because I am committed to some
important project of my own. “Count me out”—
because I’m not comfortable, not in agreement, not
on the bandwagon. “No, thank you”—because you
might feel hurt if I turn down your invitation, but my
needs take priority.
The No that is an affirmation of self implicitly
acknowledges personal responsibility. It says that
while each of us interacts with others, and loves,
respects, and values those relationships, we do not
and cannot allow ourselves always to be influenced
by them. The strength we draw from saying No is
that it underscores this hard truth of maturity: The
buck stops here.
No is both the tool and the barrier by which we
establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of the
self. No says, “This is who I am; this is what I value;
this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will
choose to act.” We love others, give to others,
cooperate with others, and please others, but we are,
always and at the core, distinct and separate selves.
We need No to carve and support that space.
No recognizes that we are the agents of our own
limits. For most of us, this self-in-charge-and-wholly-
responsible is a powerful, lonely, and very adult
awareness. We approach it two steps forward and
one giant retreat—giving in to the beloved, to the
bully, to our own urges for another drink or an
unnecessary purchase. The closer we get to manning
the barricade of self-set limits, the stronger we are.
That strength requires the power of No.
No has two faces: the one we turn toward ourselves
and the one that creates boundaries between
ourselves and others. The struggle to strengthen our
internal No, the one we address to our own self-
destructive impulses, is the struggle with which we
are most familiar. That No controls our vent of rage
on the road and our urge for the cigarette. We call
that No “self-discipline.”
The No we direct toward ourselves comes from an
internal self-governor whose job is to contain our
urges and manage our priorities within an iron fist of
reason. All our lives we may work on refining that
self-governor, tweaking it, building it, shoring it up.
The huge rewards of our governor’s developing
ability to say No—not too rigidly, but often enough
and wisely, too—are productivity and peace of mind.
The power of No is in that payoff.
The No we are able to say to others also evolves
through life, beginning with the primitive Nos of our
childhood. Anyone who has ever tried to put a 2-year-
old into a car seat has real-life evidence. As the 2-
year-old begins to differentiate himself—his will, his
wishes—from those of Mom, he hurls one loud,
endless cry: NOOOOOOOO. No, I won’t put on those
socks, won’t eat that mush, won’t leave the park!
That primordial, powerful No is the original assertion
of the self against the other. For the rest of our days
we are challenged to find the proper, effective way to
draw that line.
Line in the Sand
How much No is too much? Who turns down a needy
friend to tend one’s own garden? Where is the line
between self actualized and selfish? Who refuses to
lend support to the modest effort of a group of
friends? What is the boundary between important
principles and stubborn oppositionalism?
As a general guideline, five situations benefit from
increasing strength to say No.
When it keeps you true to your principles and
values. It’s a beautiful thing—emotionally,
spiritually, and even professionally—to be generous,
to be supportive. But, as sociologists Roger Mayer,
James Davis, and F. David Schoorman point out in
their classic studies of organizations, integrity is as
essential as benevolence in establishing
interpersonal trust. It is a requirement for
Jack, for example, has always cherished his role as
the go-to guy for his buddies. “Jack has your back”
has been his proud mantra since high school. So
when a close, married friend began an affair, Jack
maintained a discreet silence. However, when that
close friend asked Jack for the loan of his vacation
home as a convenient site for the clandestine
relationship, Jack wrestled with his conscience. He
wanted to continue to be seen as a great guy, but he
found himself uncomfortable being part of a
deception, however secondhand. In the end, he said
just that, as he turned his friend down.
Jack’s No dinged the friendship a bit and violated an
unspoken male code, at least among Jack’s peers.
Still, if being liked by others is often a by-product of
saying Yes, liking yourself sometimes comes only
from saying No.
When it protects you from cheerful
exploitation by others. It’s remarkable how much
some people will ask of you, even demand from you,
things for which you yourself wouldn’t dream of
asking. Protect yourself best from the many who feel
entitled to ask by being strong enough to say a firm,
clear, calm No.
Take a classic school and office scenario: A happy,
popular, slacker colleague asks again to borrow his
worker bee teammate’s careful notes. Mr. Worker Bee
resents being used, but can’t think of a good reason
to refuse. So he acquiesces. Gets asked again.
Resents more. Can’t think of a good reason to say No,
so he gives in. And so the cycle goes.
Finally, paying attention to his own feeling of being
taken advantage of—instead of focusing on finding a
reason acceptable to the cheerful exploiter—Worker
Bee turns Mr. Popular down. Scraping up his
backbone, Mr. Worker Bee simply says, “No, I’m not
comfortable with that.”
His No earns him a chilly reception in the company
cafeteria for a week or two. It isn’t a pleasant time,
but it passes. In its wake, Mr. Worker Bee will find a
new safety. No is a necessary life shield against the
charming users who sniff out softies. It turns out nice
guys can say No.
When it keeps you focused on your own goals.
When her boss criticized her for the second time as a
“Chatty Cathy” whose work was late because she
wasted too much time talking, Amy felt hurt and
unfairly evaluated. Was it her fault that people loved
to stop by her cubicle? How was she supposed to
turn away Marsha, whose aging mother presented so
many problems, or Jim, who wanted her thoughts on
the best way to proceed with their clients? Her
colleagues needed her support; cutting them short
would hurt their feelings and her relationships.
Amy clearly needs the power of No. Why? Because,
loving and being interested in them as she is, Amy is
losing sight of her own responsibilities, her own
agenda. No is a necessary tool to keep your goals in
mind. Frankly, meeting your own goals is what you
are being paid for and what will pay off. We all need
No to do our job instead of someone else’s.
When it protects you from abuse by others.
Sadly, our most important relationships often invite
our ugliest communications. In part that’s because
the people closest to us arouse our strongest
emotions, and in part it’s because they are the
people we fear losing the most. Fear can sap the
strength we need to say No, just when we need that
A mean adult daughter is a case in point. Isabelle
would insist that she loves her mother, but she also
finds her irritating, offering the grandchildren too
many snacks, giving Isabelle useless, anxiety-driven
advice about health, bad weather, or spending. When
Isabelle gets irritated, she snaps. She’s rude (“Shut
up!”), insulting (“Trying to make my kids fat like you,
Mom?”), or just downright mean (derisive and
contemptuous dismissal). Her frequent assaults hurt
Mom deeply, and Mom complains bitterly and often
to other family members about Isabelle’s treatment.
Despite the support of her family, Mom never draws
a line with Isabelle herself. She has yet to pull herself
up and say, “Do not speak to me like that.” She feels
unable to because, quite simply, “This is my
daughter. If I tell her she’s not allowed to speak a
certain way, she is quite capable of not speaking to
me at all. I just can’t risk it.” Stripped of the power of
No, we leave ourselves vulnerable to verbal assault.
When you need the strength to change course.
The invitations are in the mail, but the impending
marriage is a mistake. The job looks good to the rest
of the world, but it’s making you sick in the morning.
Your family has sacrificed to pay the tuition, but law
school feels like a poor fit. When you find yourself
going down the wrong road, No is the power
necessary to turn yourself around.
The obstacles to this potent No are twofold: First, of
course, you have to be able to tolerate
acknowledging, if only to yourself, that you made a
mistake. So many of us would rather be right than
happy. We will continue blindly down the wrong path
because we simply can’t bring ourselves to read the
road signs. Most of the time, though, we know when
we need to draw the line.
The problem is getting ourselves to do it. Accessing
your own power requires overcoming one huge
obstacle: the cost of dishing out No.
Dishing It Out
Simply, No is not a warm send. It’s tough to deliver,
in large part because we have a gut sense of how it
will be received—not well.
Neuroscience supports our hunch that No is going to
register far more harshly than we may have
intended. The human brain is hardwired to respond
to No more quickly, more intensely, and more
persistently than to a positive signal. No is stronger
The brain’s so-called negativity bias, first described
by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., of Florida
State University, explains why negative experiences
have a more enduring impact on emotion than
positive events of equal intensity. The brain reacts
pleasantly to positive stimuli but wildly painfully to
negative stimuli. No matter how you gift wrap it, No
is a negative event. This holds true whether we are
discussing financial matters (we are far more upset
by losing a chunk of money than we are pleased by
gaining an equal amount), interpersonal events
(negative first impressions are difficult to overcome),
or personal information (negative job feedback has a
much more profound effect than positive
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., and colleagues at the
University of Chicago actually measured the
electrical output of the cerebral cortex to
demonstrate that, across a variety of situations,
negative information leads to a swift and outsize
surge in activity. One hurt lingers longer than one
compliment. Nevertheless, the ability to rapidly
detect bad news and weight it so heavily, Cacioppo
says, evolved for a very positive reason—to keep us
out of harm’s way.
And No hurts.
Whether reasonably required (“I can’t lend my car
because I’m not insured for other drivers”), tactfully
couched (“Yours is the best banana bread ever, but
my doctor has me on a special diet”) or firmly
asserted (“Thank you for asking, but I am already
committed this weekend”), the receiver hears No.
And feels bad.
Perhaps we intuitively grasp this brain bias, this
neurological oversensitivity to No and for this reason
alone are very reluctant to trigger that powerful
reaction in others. Too, whether we sense the brain’s
negativity bias, many of us hesitate to deliver a No
because of the real interpersonal damage it may do.
No is not generally a way to win friends.
While we are not all equally vulnerable, some of us
find the sting of displeasing others absolutely
intolerable. We popularly refer to these people as
“pleasers,” and you probably know the degree to
which you are one.
Pleasers are so relationship-oriented that they will
automatically say what someone else wants to hear,
agree with someone else’s ideas, or bow to another’s
agenda without hesitation. A pleaser is frequently
socially perceived as “nice,” is usually well liked, and
often feels taken advantage of, underappreciated,
and uncertain in her decision making. It’s not an
even trade-off; when you cannot say No to others,
There’s a third cost to No that causes many of us to
pull back: No can lead to conflict. That’s a path few of
us wish to take if it can be avoided.
You may hesitate to say No because the challenge
you anticipate from others has merit. The line
between selfish and necessary self-interest is not
always clear. You want to turn down an invitation
because you don’t like parties. Your friend really
wants your support. She will vigorously object, and
you envision her making some good points. That
makes No tough.
But face it: Some people will fight your No regardless
of the issue. Such folks take others’ boundaries as a
personal affront. They challenge you, press you to
justify yourself. It is a character style, and a
successful one in many circumstances. (“Don’t take
No for an answer” is probably the best sales
technique of all.) Set up a fence and this parent,
spouse, colleague, or friend sees a barrier erected for
the sole purpose of testing his ability to knock it
down. Your No is his call to arms; most of us hesitate
before we go into battle. It’s easy to decide it’s just
not worth it.
Finally, it may be tough to dish out a No because you
can see the hurt it inflicts. Even reflected pain—a
wounded look, tears, slumped disappointment—is
difficult to bear. That’s a No we want to avoid—
sometimes when we shouldn’t.
All of these may be good reasons why we find No
tough to dish out. Tough, but absolutely necessary.
Because in the big picture, bottom line, we need to
stick up for ourselves. No is the weapon we bring to
There’s No free lunch. If you are a person who is
naturally open-hearted and generous, No can be an
unnatural stretch. If you are one of those who really
longs to be liked, it’s more than a stretch. It’s a
cringe. Unfamiliar, uncomfortable but very, very
necessary, because constant, craven Yes carves little
slices from you, while No is a rock and a shield.
Therein lies its power.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, author of
Give and Take and a professor at the University of
Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, outs the many
professional rewards and successes that accrue to
generous givers. Still, Grant emphasizes that “the
ability to say No is one of the most important skills
one can have, particularly for givers.”
Grant points to the power of No as necessary to carve
time for one’s own goals and agenda. Without it,
other people dictate your schedule and limit your
accomplishments. Says Grant, “Saying No is
especially huge in establishing a work/life balance.
Without that ability, work will cannibalize your life.”
No also makes other people respect you and your
time more, Grant notes. “When you are able to say
No, people are careful to come to you with only
meaningful requests, rather than simply asking for
any help you might be able to give.”
No makes your Yes more meaningful, or as Grant
puts it, “It makes you more of a specialist, rather
than a generalist in what you give to others.” When
we say Yes thoughtfully, because we are giving in our
area of expertise, rather than saying Yes out of a
need to be liked, we are far more apt to feel satisfied
No pays off in the personal arena as well as the
professional one. It’s exhilarating to feel in charge of
one’s self, to be the boundary setter and the decider.
There’s a bonus in energy and self-confidence.
Too, No tests the health and equity of your closest
relationships. If you feel you cannot say No, at least
to some things, some of the time, then you are not
being loved—you are being controlled.
Finally, and perhaps most important, personal
integrity requires the power of No. The ability to say
No is an essential element of one’s moral compass.
Without it, we are merely agreeable pleasers, the
Pillsbury doughboys of morals and values. Whatever
the cost or quake involved when you deliver a No,
backbone is defined by your ability to say it.
OK, No costs. Your payoff in integrity and autonomy,
however, is huge. The choice on the table is clear:
Strengthen your ability to say No while lowering its
cost to your relationships. Several strategies can help
you achieve that balance.
Replace your automatic Yes with “I’ll think
If you haven’t used this technique much, you will be
awed by the results. “I’ll think about it” puts you in
control, softens the ground for No, suggests you are
actually weighing important factors, and, most
important, allows you the opportunity to think things
through. A No that follows thoughtful decision
making is a more grounded fence than a No that is
fueled by emotional impulse.
Soften your language.
Try “I’m not comfortable with that.” “I’d prefer not.”
“I’d rather…” “Let’s agree to disagree here.” Or
“That’s a good/nice/interesting plan, but I won’t be
able to…” This last is a variant of the Oreo cookie
communication strategy, in which you say something
positive (“You are such a warm and charming
person”), sandwich in the filling of a tactful No (“I
don’t think you and I have a romantic future”), and
then end with another cookie (“I have so enjoyed the
time we’ve spent together; you really make me
Make no mistake. You are still delivering a clear and
powerful No, and the other person well understands
that. This No, sweeter and softer, may go down
Contain your feelings.
No is best deployed pleasantly with an air of Zen
calm. (Tricky, because you are likely feeling very far
from it.) Outward calm helps quiet your inner
turmoil. What’s more, it will reduce the negative
impact of your No on the brain of your audience. The
jolt that No delivers is big enough without a tsunami
of anger and invective.
Refer to your commitment to others.
Say No without appearing selfish or uncaring by
referencing your conflicting obligations to other
people. “I’d love to help, but I have already agreed to
help my mother/colleague/student then, and I can’t
let him/her down.”
Realize you represent others.
Wharton’s Adam Grant suggests that you are likely
to negotiate more assertively if you recognize, or
even imagine, that you are negotiating a salary on
behalf of your family or negotiating a sale on behalf
of your company. When it’s not just your own
interest at stake, you may find it easier to say No to a
Ongoing situations—a demanding boss who keeps
piling on the work, a needy family member who
never limits her requests, a mate who badgers until
you cave—can benefit from your thoughtful, private
You may design one clear, respectful No and keep
repeating it no matter what comes your way. (“I
cannot take on another project, Sir, because my plate
is too full.” “I cannot take on another project, Sir,
because my plate is too full.”) Repeat politely until
the boss finally hears you.
You may practice calmly cutting the conversation
short. (“Honey, you and I don’t agree on this. Let’s
close the conversation.”) He goes on; you go silent.
Or, if you practice long enough, you might just
become strong enough to listen to any inappropriate,
uncomfortable, excessive request, pause for breath,
and then deliver your one-word, no-explanation