27 Jun 2024

Refusing to Take No for an Answer

We all know that saying “no” can be extremely hard: we risk disappointing or letting down our friends and colleagues; we might upset someone who relies on our emotional support. But the whole business becomes much more difficult when we encounter someone who simply won’t take no for an answer.

We’ve all met people who simply refuse to be refused. From the most trivial thing, such as saying no to a glass of wine, to turning down an invitation, our every negative is met with a torrent of incredulity, distress, cajoling and pleas to reconsider. It is emotionally exhausting, and it is also very rude: good manners dictate that we respect other people’s integrity and their ability to make their own decisions and we accept them graciously with a minimum of fuss. We may feel disappointed or let down, but we should never use those feelings to manipulate other people into doing what we want.

A Social No

The tendency not to take no for an answer is often very apparent in social situations, especially when someone is hosting. This is because the social responsibility of offering hospitality can make people feel pressurised and exposed. They have gone to a great deal of trouble to organise a social event and understandably want it to be a great success. They are anxious about the food and drink and the social dynamics. So, when a guest says no (to the invitation, an offer of a drink, a second helping, a plea to stay), they dig their heels in and seek to persuade the nay-sayer to change their minds. This inevitably makes the whole encounter awkward and embarrassing, which of course is completely counterproductive.

You might find that you have friends or relations who are very prone to refusing to take no for an answer. When they extend an invitation, or ask for a favour, you are filled with dread, because you know you are about to embark on a long, possibly distressing, negotiation, which might even end in your capitulation. Try and do the following:

•Think carefully about why you are saying no and be sure that you have good reasons for doing so.  If your refusal is well-founded, you should be able to assert it more firmly. If you’re half-minded to comply, you’ll be open to persuasion – but beware, that sets a dangerous precedent and you might find that your refusals are never taken seriously.

•Inveterate non-accepters of refusals may use texts and emails to engage in long negotiations or may even try to persuade you that they didn’t get your text or that your message wasn’t clear. Sometimes it’s easier to say no in person or, failing that, on the phone. You can communicate decisiveness and resolution much more effectively in the tone of your voice than in a written message.

•Be polite and decisive, and don’t feel compelled to elaborate. Once you start listing excuses (other commitments, social exhaustion and so on), you are giving the other person a nugget of information which they can use to worry away at you (pleas to reschedule, attempts to persuade you that your batteries will be recharged by a social event).

• Be observant about the tactics the other person will use. It is likely that you have had difficulties with this person before, so you should be aware of their techniques: they may be adept at making you feel guilty (I “won’t enjoy it if you’re not there!), or skilled at manipulating your fear of missing out (using promises of illustrious guestlists, alluring venues, gourmet food etc), or good at flattering you (“but you're the life and soul of the party!”). Forewarned is forearmed.

•Shut the conversation down, but politely. Acknowledge the other person’s kindness (especially if they are asking you to a social event) but reiterate your refusal: “It was so kind of you to invite us to dinner on Saturday, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to come. I do hope you all have a lovely time!”

•If you’re interrogated about your reasons for saying no, keep your answers polite and pithy; you are under no pressure to go into minute detail about your social commitments, or rambling anecdotes about the myriad reasons why you can’t comply. Just say something like “I’ve got other social commitments that night…” and leave it at that.

A Professional No

It was once considered a great compliment to say that your boss was “someone who won’t take no for an answer!” because it indicated that he was relentlessly bullish, didn’t believe in failure and was always looking for positive outcomes, even if that meant pushing his team and ignoring objections.

Nowadays, we are all too painfully aware of the perils of 24/7 working and recognise that relentless pressure at work can lead to stress and burnout. Yet many workplaces are powered by a culture that is all about saying “yes” to impossible requests, showing a willingness to do whatever it takes, and expects employees to contribute to a general atmosphere of positivity. There is so much emphasis on team dynamics and achievements that workers are afraid to say “no” because they fear they are letting their colleagues and managers down, even if they know that they are jeopardising their work-life balance and might quite possibly be promising something they simply can’t deliver, with all the attendant stress that involves.

Hearing the word “no” and taking it seriously means not seeing it as an indicator of general negativity, but as a sign that too much is being demanded of the workforce. In these circumstances, it is vital for managers and team leaders to prioritise the demands that they are making and to look at other solutions, such as hybrid, part-time or flexible working.

At work, as in social life, it is important to take no for an answer. Nobody, in a professional context, is going to say “no” lightly. We are all convinced that our capacity as workhorses and our willingness to take on ever great challenges are the indicators that we are good employees. But these traits might be signals that we are overreaching, compromising our professionalism through over-ambitious striving, and very possibly becoming much less effective because we are just demanding too much of ourselves.

Managers need to create a culture where expectations are realistic and employees’ estimates of their capacity or doubts about the viability of certain undertakings, are taken seriously. Indeed, they should create a culture where they are willing to take no for an answer and should congratulate themselves because doing so is an indication that workers are being respected.


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