The personal growth world is full of pithy one-liners that appear to summarise the answer to a universal struggle in a single sentence. One of these is “No is a complete sentence.”
The problem with these pithy statements is that life is usually far more nuanced than they make out. Saying no is no exception. This is part of a wider topic: boundaries. As with many personal growth topics, when we start exploring how we approach boundaries in our lives, we can end up in what Amy Smith (who I interviewed in #96 of the BWYA podcast) calls “self-help gone bad.” We discover we’ve been living at one extreme end of the spectrum (for example, being other people’s personal doormat) and react to this by doing a complete 180 to the other extreme, becoming unnecessarily rude or over-demonstrative when asserting or enforcing our boundaries. This is where conventional wisdom like “No is a complete sentence” is only half the story.
It’s true we owe no one an explanation; responding with a no is our prerogative, and no one has a right to demand a reason or change of heart. Even though it’s not owed, however, in some contexts it’s in the best interests of the relationship to share more. In my experience, the “No is a complete sentence” statement can become something we hide behind when we’re not comfortable owning our own needs and preferences. In this situation, it’s easier to avoid feeling discomfort around declining by shutting down the conversation with a single defining “No” than it is to be vulnerable and share a little more of ourselves in the process.
The way I think about “no” is that it’s a spectrum and it’s a personal spectrum. The boundaries of part of the spectrum will be different for each of us, but I’ve found it useful to be aware of the varying degrees of “no” and think about which kind of response feels right for me.
Introducing: The spectrum of “no”
NRN (no response needed): In some situations, the best kind of no is no response at all. Everyone’s tolerance for this is different. I apply this to things like unreasonable requests, spammy communication, and nasty emails, as well as any kind of harassment and inappropriate comments. Responding to these things is a waste of my time and only serves to prolong a fruitless and pointless interaction.
No + no explanation: This is where “no is a complete sentence” fits right in. This might apply to requests from someone we don’t know or any situation where we’re not invested in our relationship with the person making the request. Even in this context, a no doesn’t have to be rude. It can be a “no” with a smile and still be a firm boundary.
No + generalised explanation: This might look like “it’s not a good fit,” “I’m not looking to take on any more commitments right now”, etc. I use this kind of no when I appreciate the person thinking of me but can’t (or don’t want to) honour their request. It’s a polite way of saying “Thanks but no thanks!” in a way that leaves the door open for further communication, connection and opportunities in the future.
No + personalised explanation: This is the no I reserve for relationships I’m invested in: my husband, my friends, and people I know, like and respect. This kind of no requires a little more vulnerability. It involves us stepping out from the blanket statement of “no is a complete sentence” and getting comfortable owning our needs and preferences. Offering this kind of no is not the same as making excuses or justifications. Instead, it’s about using the experience of saying “no” as an opportunity for connection.
The way I think about the varying degrees of no is this:
An explanation isn’t owed, but sometimes it is earned. When we apply the “No is a complete sentence” rule across the entire spectrum, we end up putting ourselves into needlessly confrontational situations (where no response would be better) and, at the other end of the scale, potentially harming relationships in which the other person has earned more explanation.
If my husband says “Hey, do you want to meet up with this group of friends tonight?” and at the end of a busy week it’s the last thing my introvert heart feels like doing, I could respond with “No.” But in that context, a “no” without explanation is more likely to build barriers than foster connection. If, however, I explain my reasons, clarify I want him to meet his needs (he is an extrovert) and offer alternative suggestions or a compromise that’s win-win for both of us, I’m showing him I understand him, I’m giving him a chance to understand me, and I’m attempting to work with him rather than shutting the conversation down.
Do I have to?
But it makes for a healthier, happier and more fulfilling relationship.
What do you think about this idea of “The spectrum of No?” Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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