Steve Jobs said focusing is all about saying “No”. If you want to have laser focus, then learn the art of a slow “yes’ and a quick “no”.
However, for many of us mastering this art is not easy at all. The roots of this problem go as far back as when we were children. Growing up as kids we associated the word “no” with rejection and denial.
Mommy, can I have that bar of chocolate? NO.
Daddy, could I have that shiny new toy? NO.
Mommy, can I stay up late tonight? NO.
Daddy, can I not have a shower today? NO.
BAD IS STRONGER THAN GOOD
Multiple research in the field of Social Neuroscience has shown that our brain responds far more strongly to negative feedback and stimuli. Negative information produces a bigger and swifter surge of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex than does positive affirmation. Negative memories are stronger than positive ones. Infact, even close and intimate relationships are more deeply influenced and affected by negative actions than constructive or positive actions. That’s why we remember very clearly what our parents denied us when we were kids but seldom remember what they provided for us. We scarcely remember the many fabulous things our partners may have told us but remember with elephantine memory every single hurtful word they ever uttered. And that’s also the reason why bad news goes viral in no time and precisely why malicious gossip travels faster. No wonder there is a glut of mood enhancing drugs, food, music and fragrances. We need protection from negative forces.
There is something evolutionary about why our brains behave this way. A strong memory of something bad or hurtful helps us avoid such situations in future. For example – If we are walking along a trail, our brain perceives the harmless piece of rope as a snake. This helps us avoid potentially dangerous situations that could endanger our well-being.
AVOIDANCE OF CONFLICT OR FEAR OF CONFRONTATION
As children, we are taught to obey authority. We are supposed to do what parents, teachers, and others in power tell us. We obey not only because of fear of being punished, but also because of an innate desire to please and be loved by these very people who are so important to us. Unfortunately, we often carry this trend well into our adulthood.
The teenager who refuses to smoke when all in her group are puffing away, inadvertently puts herself in the spotlight, sticking out like a sore thumb. She is fearful that If everyone else is smoking and she isn’t then she might get verbally attacked or ridiculed by her peer group and end up having no friends. So, she hesitantly takes her first puff because she badly wants to blend in the gang and be liked by them.
As we grow older, this desire of avoiding conflict manifests itself in the form of wanting to be accepted and be liked by all. In short, our desire to avoid saying “no” and giving negative feedback could be because we know that both emotionally and neurologically, negative feedback hurts and that is precisely why we suppress our inclination to say “no” to avoid confrontation.
HOW TO SAY NO BETTER
Saying “No” to someone or something need not be the verbal equivalent of showing your middle finger. It can be a win-win experience for all involved.
Introspect, get to know yourself better – define what is important to you and realise what is not. Value yourself as a top-notch brand would. Your actions will define your brand guidelines. Value your own credibility, your time and commitment.
Don’t be a tour operator for guilt trips – Don’t let guilt eat you up. Often despite taking logically sound decisions we are worried what if our relationship with a person is impaired after a refusal. If it does, then it wasn’t a sincere relationship but possibly a manipulative one. Someone who truly appreciates us would never ask us to do something that goes against our interests. In any case most people do not take our “no” as badly as we think they will. That’s because of something called a “harshness bias“—our tendency to believe others will judge us more severely than they actually do.
Time out – delay the “yes” if the terms are ambiguous. State upfront that you need time to think about it. Don’t lie or over explain. Accept the request later only if you find compelling arguments for it.
Don’t get personal – Your “no” must always be to the specific request and not to the person making that request. Soften the blow. Let the other person know politely something you genuinely admire or respect about them. And that you are not rejecting the person just declining their invitation. But stay firm with your decision of saying “no”.
Practice your “no”– Keep practicing and perfecting your art of saying “no” by trying it out in low risk, easy and safe situations such as when the bartender offers you another refill or when that pesky vendor on the road tries to hard sell you something.
After all, what you don’t do often determines what you can do.
“I can’t tell you the key to success but the key to failure is trying to please everyone” – Ed Sheeran