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

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

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.

Pic­ture: iS­tock

HOLD ON: Women can un­der­mine them­selves by want­ing to be seen as good, nice, and agree­able.

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