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WSJ Column: How to say No to other people

Joy Chen in Vogue China March 2013

Amidst all the bad news about how newspapers and magazines are suffering the USA, I’m always heartened by the wonderful successes of China’s fashion media.

Some people regard the fashion media as frivolous, but I believe they play a serious and important role.  And not simply about the important subjects of beauty and fashion (yes they are important!) but also to helping their readers to radiate strength and beauty from the inside on out.

Last December in Beijing I spent such a delightful day with the talented team at Vogue China and am glad to see our March issue is now out on newsstands.  It’s called “陈愉告诉女人:你很重要.“  If you didn’t pick up a copy, you can read the article by Ruoxu Deng on Weibo here.

My latest WSJ column addresses the most important word we have to protect ourselves, and that word is “No.”  It’s important because every day we find ourselves in situations when we need to stand up for ourselves, at work, at home and even with those friends who keep asking for too many favors from us.

Here it is below, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal China:

How to say No to other people

At the 1997 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, Steve Jobs was asked why he slashed a program that some in the audience had worked hard on. This is how he responded:

‘You’ve got to say No, No, No and when you say No you piss off people.’

The reason, he said, is that ‘Focusing is about saying No.’

Well, it’s the same for each of us as individuals.

To accomplish anything in life, we need focus, and that requires learning to say no.

‘No’ is the word we must use to protect ourselves

For many of us, though, this presents a problem. Because in today’s always-on, wired world, change just gets faster, and the pressure just gets more intense, for each of us to take on more. More work, more obligations, more deadlines.

And so we fall into the trap of constantly saying Yes.

But when we’re constantly overworked and overstressed from the strain of trying to do it all, we’ll never be successful in our lives.

This is a problem that weighs on both men and women, but it’s a special problem for many of us who are women. Because saying No seems to go against all that we’ve ever been taught, which is to please other people. After all, the last thing we’d want is to be called selfish!

But as I look back, I see that every time I’ve felt lost or stuck is when I’ve said Yes too much to someone else – a friend, a boyfriend, a company I worked for. Once I got so stuck into the pattern of Yes that I got mired in a destructive long-term relationship.It would have saved me so much time and grief if I’d just said that one little word – No – at the start.

Dr. William Ury teaches negotiations at Harvard Law School and to U.N.peacekeepers, and in his book The Power of a Positive No, he writes: ‘No is the word we must use to protect ourselves and to stand up for everything and everyone that matters to us. But as we all know, the wrong No can also destroy what we most value by alienating and angering people.’

That’s why it’s so important not simply to say no, but to learn to do so effectively.

How to say ‘No’

The trick to saying No is be warm but firm.

1. Prioritize. To say no, the first step is to be clear on what exactly are your priorities in life. The more firmly you’re connected to your Yes, the easier it will be to say No.

2. Be appreciative. Usually when people ask for your help, it’s because they trust you and believe in your ability to help them. Being kind will show that you’re not rejecting the person.

3. Be brief. I’ve often made the mistake of so profusely apologizing for saying No that I eventually talked my way into saying Yes! I’ve since learned that you never need to apologize for doing what’s right for you. One sentence is enough to explain what you’re saying Yes to which prevents you from fulfilling their request.

4. Yes-No-Yes. Dr. Ury suggests offering a creative Yes-No-Yes solution. First, share what you’re currently saying Yes to (‘My mother and I always go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings’). Then say No (‘So I won’t be able to help you set up for your luncheon.’). Finish with a new Yes (‘But I’d be happy to help clean up after it’s over’).

5. Take time before responding. This is another mistake I’ve often made. When approached with a request, my instinctive reaction has been ‘Sure, I can do that!’ To avoid saying Yes under pressure, or reacting emotionally to a request, take a few hours or a day before responding. Figure out whose interests are at stake, what’s really being asked of you, and whether it makes sense to say Yes.

6. Be firm. Even if the other person gets angry or emotional after you’ve said No, don’t yield. Instead, listen attentively, then calmly restate your No. Keep it simple and firm, and don’t backpedal.

7. Be pre-emptive. We’ve all had certain people in our lives who consistently make unreasonable demands. With them, act proactively by stating upfront what it is that you’re focused on. If it’s your boss, agree with her how you should be spending your time, and if she piles on more requests, then refer to your earlier conversation.

‘No’ has the power to transform our lives

When we learn to say No properly, wonderful things will happen:

Our lives will have less pressure and stress. Our lives will feel more balanced because each area of our lives gives us strength rather than saps our strength.

We’ll become more self-confident. The act of saying No actually gives us confidence in life. Because when we take charge of our lives, we’ll stop being so preoccupied with other people’s opinions.

We’ll be more successful. We’ll be more successful in all that we do because we’re focused on doing fewer things and doing those well. And by addressing our own needs, we’ll gain the strength we need to do more for ourselves and others.

In a world full of productivity and time-management tips, the word No is the best productivity and time-management tip of all.

And we can use this skill in all areas of our lives. For example, when other people give us pressure to live our lives in a way which suits them but which goes against our own values.Or when other people bully us and try to control us.We can learn to say No with grace and strength.

‘No’ is the key to greater joy and purpose in our lives

Most of us are not like Steve Jobs, who famously was accustomed to saying (or shouting) No. For most of us, saying No takes practice, and courage. After all, you may worry about jeopardizing a friendship. Or about being a bad person by letting someone down. Or you may worry about getting a reputation for being unhelpful.

Worrying about all these things actually speaks well of your generosity and empathy, and those are wonderful qualities to have.But remember that by balancing your ‘pleaser’ and ‘doer’ tendencies, you’ll be stronger and happier.

The irony is that when we learn to say No, our relationships with other people actually will improve. When we let people know that we respect ourselves, people will respect and like us more. We teach people how to treat us.

The word No puts us in charge of our lives. It infuses our lives with more joy and more purpose because it frees us to focus on the people and things that we value the most.

*Can you think of something – or someone – in your life that you wish you had said No to? How would your life be different now if you had?

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever said No to?

*This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear the author read this English column aloud by clicking here.