The Answer is No

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.


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.


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.


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

Tell me why

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  – Voltaire

Have you ever wondered why adults don’t ask enough questions? All of us as preschoolers have badgered our parents with innumerable questions. Infact, I am told that kids aged 4 to 6 years ask an average of 100 questions a day, often asking the same questions again and again. This questioning and the answers we as parents give them helps children make sense of the universe around them. But the same inquisitive children by the time they reach middle school ask almost no questions. Why is that? Have they stopped being engaged and interested in the world around them? The answer to this gradual drying up of curiosity lies in our educational system which rewards children for having the answer and not for asking questions. For example, do you know of any school that uses a test where students were asked to formulate questions, instead of answering questions?

But why blame the educational system alone, even Media, Politicians, Employers and organized religion does the same. Media tells us what we need to know. Politicians tell us what they are doing for the people and how it is in our best interests, they do not ask us what they could do better. Religion tells us what we should and shouldn’t do as true believers. Most Job descriptions put out by Employers ask for problem solving skills, not problem identification capability in the applicant. Having been a participant in many a training workshops I have realized that these workshops mostly teach people what to think, the processes, the procedure, the methodologies and the information required to do a task.  But they seldom teach you how to think.

Society influences, manipulates and programs our brains to obey, fall in line, and conform but seldom does it prompt us to ask questions or carefully consider what is being told to us.

So then why is asking questions important?

Asking questions helps us dig beneath assumptions and conventional wisdom to get to the deeper truth and possible untapped opportunities.  Asking questions helps us how to think and when we know how to think we can adapt that learning to multiple situations not just the ones we have been trained for.

Research has shown that one skill that is common to all top performers is the ability to ask good questions. Top performers often ask questions that move from ordinary and reactionary thinking to deep thinking. Most importantly these questions spur people into action.  Best innovations come only from problem identification.

Imagine what if Newton had not asked himself why the apple fell on his head? What if Tesla had not challenged Edison’s Direct Current theory? What if Steve Jobs did not Think Different?

Why are people afraid to ask questions?

The very thought of asking questions invokes in people a feeling of fear, anxiety & stress. Because we think that asking questions will make us look weak, ignorant or unsure.  We like to give the impression that we are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. We are apprehensive that asking questions might introduce uncertainty or show us in a poor light. More significantly, some of us who want our pre-programmed thinking re-affirmed never ask any questions.

However, asking questions is a sign of strength and intelligence – not a sign of weakness or uncertainty. Great leaders constantly ask questions and are well aware that they do not have all the answers.

If we are just accepting other people’s answers without questioning then we are consuming what I call “intellectual fast food” – convenient, pre-packaged and processed with other people’s thoughts, experiences and ideas.

So how can we learn to ask questions or maybe even better questions?

Look around ourselves with curious, observant eyes and take time to wonder about things we often take for granted. Like maybe why doesn’t the moon fall from the sky?

Then we can progress from “why”  to “what if” (say the mass of moon increased considerably for it to exert more gravitational force)  to “how” (if moon did actually start falling on to the earth how could we stop it). And voila, we have discovered the practical applications of laws of gravity.

Asking many questions is very effective but it can also make us appear to be inquisitorial and intrusive. Therefore, it is important to ask questions in a friendly and unthreatening way. Do not ask accusing questions. Also, how we use our words in framing the question differentiates a good question from a bad question.  For example – If I ask myself why am I so lazy? The answer that my brain will give me for that question will be very different from the answer my brain provides to a better question such as how can I get this job done?

Knowing the answer will help us in school, knowing how to question helps us in life.

The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” – Peter Abelard