A new way to think about saying “no”

For most of my life, I have been a good citizen. I apologize to waiters before I ask them to correct their own mistakes, I smile at conning salesmen who try to slide one past me. I never fought back – I have been polite, accommodating, tolerant to everyone for years.

So that I’m not rude, of course. The qualities make me an easy coworker, customer, and overall people pleaser.

And so people have messed with me, moving me around to get what they want. Pushing me to the side at workplaces, telling me it was too early for a raise and why don’t I let them lead this project, they’ll give me the next one that comes up. Talking overtop of me in conversations, and telling me to do it their way. I relented, and walked out of all of those situations without getting what I wanted. Instead, that other person – the person who pushed my buttons and my boundaries – got what they wanted.

Recently, I decided that was going to stop. So I tried something new with a particularly thorny asshole who I sometimes deal with. He has something perpetually shoved up there, and he doesn’t see anyone else in the tunnel vision of his life where he chases his own reflection in the mirror, like a dog gnawing on its own tail. He tried to push me to do something that I’d previously told him I wasn’t going to do. It was something that made me very uncomfortable, and he had no business asking me to do it.

I put my hand on the back of my desk chair and held the phone close to my mouth, and pushed the words through my teeth. “Not gonna work,” I said. “That’s not what we agreed on.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” he said. “I expected you to be flexible at least.”

A response like this typically intimidates and shames me. Oh no, I’ve been rude, I typically think. I respond that I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be inflexible. Let’s find a solution that works for both of us. But this time, I knew that I hadn’t been rude – he had. I stamped new words out with my tongue.

“I’m not being inflexible. I gave you the boundary, and you’re trying to push it. And the answer is no.”

He hadn’t expected this. “Wh–I mean–You–I don’t understand.”

I had surprised him, which surprised me. This new approach was producing a result I’d never seen before, so I kept going. “It’s simple,” I said. “I’m not going to do that. So come up with something else, or stick to our original agreement.”

There was a long pause. “Okay,” he said. “I will.”

And he did. After I hung up, I realized what I’d just done: Stand up for myself and get what I want for the first time. I said no, with conviction, without any apologies or reasons. Just no.

What a beautiful word to now have in my vocabulary.


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