My mother used to tell me, “No means no.” Not very illuminating. As a teenager, NO was a clear rejection, an invalidation of me. I never wanted to ask for anything that would produce that response. Therefore, I was very measured about what I asked for.
As a young bride, NO meant, “I don’t love you enough.” I thought that my husband would do anything for me. He did, at least in the courting stage. When NO started to appear in our relationship, I felt, “If you loved me, you would…” We both bought into that meaning of NO and tried to avoid it as a way of demonstrating our care for one another. But eventually, endlessly trying to accommodate another at the cost of our own self-concerns took a toll. An invisible balance sheet loomed large in the background. I started keeping score.
This meaning is common. One of our family members absolutely cannot accept a NO when she’s asking for something that she considers reasonable and justified, as though it’s the only and right thing to do if you are a decent person. She’s relentless in her pursuit of a YES and gets angry when the outcome remains unchanged.
After my second divorce, and years of difficulty with NO and feelings of rejection, I came to study the philosophy of language. There I learned that there is no one true meaning of any word. To understand words, we must seek to understand the intention of the speaker and acknowledge the kind of relationship we have with one another. Before we ask anything of anyone, we ought to consider their right to say NO in the first place. Because NO comes in two varieties – with or without consequences, it behooves us to reflect on the context of our relationship – who are you to me?
If we are going to dance with others as equals, we must accept them as legitimate others, with full and equal rights. Freedom to decline is a hallmark of equality. Legitimate others must be able to say NO without feeling pressured.
If I am your boss and your job depends on your fulfilling my requests, NO could come with penalties. In the army, saying NO to a commanding officer could have a very high price, up to and including court martial. Without room to decline, requests become commands. If we are to honor another’s legitimacy, we must give them the space to say YES or NO to our requests.
It’s important for people with rank to establish the rules of their dance. Because subordinates frequently operate with the idea that they have to fulfill all the requests made to them, they experience a lot of pressure and undue stress. A boss is well-served to set the context for working together. A statement like, “I will be making abundant requests to you, and of course, I’d like you to fulfill them, if you can. But I don’t keep track of what’s on your plate. So, if it’s too much, you need to tell me and we’ll figure out together how to get it done by reprioritizing or bringing in other help. I also want you to be honest with me if you don’t know how to do what I’m asking or don’t fully understand what I’m looking for.” Too often, subordinates are afraid to ask for clarification for fear of being thought incompetent, or worse, an idiot.
If NO means, “You are an important person to me. At the same time, I cannot or will not do what you are asking AND I am open to your requests in the future,” a decline will not insult, reject, or detract from the legitimacy of the requestor.
In our personal relationships – family, friends, lovers, consider asking this question, “Do I have room to decline with you without punishment?” And consider your answer when it’s asked of you.