Saying no to get ahead
Turning down an opportunity isn’t a negative move — it’s an active decision and can be rewarding personally, according to author Abigail Headon. She talks to Marjorie Brennan
IN a world in which we are constantly switched on, where being busy is seen as a badge of honour and we are exhorted to be positive at all times, the word ‘no’ doesn’t always come easy. In her new book The Power of No, Abigail Headon encourages people to stop and think before they say yes to everything.
“It seems obvious that you need to promote positivity, that if you say yes to opportunities, then obviously your life can be bigger. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised how under-used the word no is in everyday life,” says Headon.
She explores the tensions between standing up for ourselves and not wanting to upset others. Women in particular are bedevilled by the curse of people-pleasing; from a young age, girls are taught to be seen as good, nice, and agreeable. “If women push back, we are seen as argumentative or difficult rather than powerful or decisive.”
Perfectionism is also something that can make saying no difficult for women. “It is true that women need to be seen to be able to handle everything perfectly… I am not a mother but I know that mothers often feel it particularly. There is a pressure to be giving the best to your children — and for people to know it — and to be the best at your job and to never let anything drop. That is impossible.
“Even without children, women can have that pressure to have the best social life, the best holiday, the best fitness regime, the best diet, the best Instagram, the best career. Sometimes I think no is necessary to stop you burning out.”
Saying no doesn’t always equate to being negative, says Headon. “To be negative is more of a passive state; to say no is an active choice. And if you say no, what you are doing in effect is saying yes to something else. For example, if a friend of yours is having a hen party that involves going away for several days and spending hundreds of pounds, you can say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have the money or the time but I wish you all the best and let’s have a drink some other time to celebrate’.
“When we are faced with that kind of dilemma, we often think, ‘Oh no, I’ll hurt her feelings. What will everyone think? I probably should go’. Actually, it is really empowering and refreshing if you step back from that and think, ‘Hold on a second, what do I actually want?’”
Headon cites several examples of the positive impact of saying no, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern, who wore a full-length feathered Maori cloak on a visit to Buckingham Palace, the perfect illustration of a woman saying no to limitations projected by others. Laura Bates is another inspiring example of someone whose decision to say no had a huge impact. She founded the Everyday Sexism project, which invites women to share their experiences of sexist behaviour, and now runs in 25 countries.
According to Headon, this shows that even if we’re unable to say no at the moment when an event occurs, by sharing our stories we challenge behaviour patterns that should not be viewed as acceptable, which can lead to profound social change.
At this time of year when many of us resolve to change old habits, our ability to say no can be sorely tested. Conversely, Headon says that in this case, saying yes is the best way to empower yourself to achieve change. “Although we need to say no to old habits, you are much more likely to be successful if you aim for something that you actually want and you say yes to that — because that will enable you to say no. For example, speaking personally, if I want to say no to sitting around watching telly and eating snacks for three hours every evening, I need to say yes to living a more active life and eating food that makes me feel healthy.”
In terms of saying no when we are facing a big decision and looking for a clear direction, Headon recommends taking the ‘SWOT’ approach — looking at it in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. For example, she says your strength could be that you’re thoughtful, and your weakness might be that you lose confidence in a stressful situation. Acknowledging a weakness helps you to prepare — by planning what you want to say, for example — and sets you up for a successful outcome. Opportunities and threats are external factors, describing outcomes of your no. New possibilities may open up: These are your opportunities but at the same time, negative outcomes are possible too, such as hurting someone’s feelings, and these would go in the threats section.
According to Headon, examining a potential no decision in this way will help give you a more objective overview of a difficult choice. Headon has made such choices herself and has seen a positive outcome.
“I’ve had times in my life when I’ve felt stuck or blocked and I’ve made a change; two years ago I went freelance from my fulltime job [in publishing] and that was a massive risk. I thought,‘How will I pay the bills?’, but as it turned out, the people I knew gave me lots of work, and I ended up growing, becoming more confident.
“Some people call me a Pollyanna but I prefer to think of myself as a realistic optimist and that there are often small things you can do to make life better. As humans, we need to get along but we also thrive individually when we have a balance between pleasing other people and pleasing ourselves.”
Like everything in life, there are limits. “I don’t want the word no to become a magic word that you use at all times to get what you want, That would be a disaster,” she laughs.
HOLD ON: Women can undermine themselves by wanting to be seen as good, nice, and agreeable.