The give and take of “No”

The give and take of "No" - Quill and Curio blog

“No” is a healthy part of our vocabulary. It helps to define boundaries, set expectations, and protect a person from unsolicited words or actions. “No” is often heard around our house to help the kids understand what is and isn’t acceptable. “No, Norah, you shouldn’t do headstands on the couch,” or “No, Theo, please don’t put the bubble wand in your mouth.” These cautionary No’s are also meant to protect and avoid unpleasant or unhealthy consequences.

Depending on the situation and how you anticipate interacting with someone in the future, it could be necessary to cushion the “No” to varying degrees of palatability. Or, it could be a bare bones, no-nonsense “No” to really get a point across. Either way, the delivery must be handled appropriately in relation to the context of the situation in order to be effective and not over or under done. This can also determine how well the “No” lands with the recipient.

On the flip side, the recipient of a “No” is often defined more by how they respond to it, more so than whatever they said, did or requested to elicit a “No” in the first place. Norah usually responds by crying. Theodore usually thinks we’re joking and runs to the playroom, his laughter and lack of obligation mocking us all the way.

Recently, I was the recipient of two distinctly different No’s. I received two separate emails from two different people telling me “No” about a request I made. The first person was brusque and didn’t seem to really understand my concerns. The second person followed up on the first responder’s email and offered a potential solution, but couldn’t promise that it would work. Still, this person ended the email with an assurance that left me feeling acknowledged and confident that they’d at least look into a potential resolution – a much more positive way to frame a “No.”

I had to carefully consider how I would respond to this situation. On the one hand, I had legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the team had worked so hard and I didn’t want to impact their engagement or deflate their confidence. In the end, my reaction would have an impact – either positive or negative – on future encounters.

Rather than responding to the first email right away with a knee-jerk response – a temptation I’ve admittedly succumbed to in the past – I waited. And waited. And then went out for coffee with a friend. I needed time to lose some of the heat that I felt after reading the first email. And, I was thankful for the second email which was much more constructive. It gave me a thread of positivity to grab onto, and it was that tiny thread that eased the give and take of “No” in a way that only kindness and understanding can achieve.

How do you give and take “No”?


  1. zerocattle says:

    I do my best to never say no. I will, however, say “not for you, this is for you” (to kids), “it’s not feasible within this time frame/with the currently used technologies/et cetera” (to clients), “I’m not available, how about ___”, and so on.

    A flat out no is perceived harshly almost all the time. If I’m asked for something unreasonable, I may say no. I may also say that the request is unreasonable, and offer a different option. Depends on the request, really.

    I read somewhere that a woman should say no without any excuses, to be taken seriously. And I certainly think that excuses are problematic (reasons, however, help), but a flat no is a door slam. If you want/need to keep the communication flowing, a contextual no is much better.

    Even better still, my father taught me years ago that no one should raise a problem without also offering a possible solution. So if there is a no to be offered (problem), either an explanation (gravity doesn’t function that way, please drink sitting up) or an alternate solution (here is a straw, maybe you can drink upside down using a straw) is the preferred approach to facilitating an ongoing relationship and establishing authority in any given field. (I am the Mother of Consequences of Gravity on Liquids, for instance.)

    • As usual, you always have such a thoughtful response, Suzanne 🙂 I agree – a flat no is like slamming a door. And, I don’t think we, as women, need to say no without excuses to be taken seriously. I agree that we don’t need to over explain or rationalize our decisions to others if it isn’t anyone else’s business, but sometimes an explanation is helpful for both parties. I would think it funny (haha-funny) if being taken seriously (as a woman or otherwise) could be achieved in such a tactical way as saying no without excuses often enough (or maybe the key is to do it without fail?)…lol…is that all there is to it? 😉


  2. zerocattle says:

    For what it’s worth, I walk away from my email/computer when people are harsh. I don’t think they always know they are being harsh, and I don’t want to make something out of nothing. But if it is a habit of communication by a person, working with someone else (the second responder) is a good solution.

    • I do believe I will try to work with the second responder as we continue to figure out if there is a workable solution to the issue at hand or not 🙂 Still waiting to hear back.


  1. […] my favourite comment has come from Suzanne of @zerocattle who shared her thoughts in response to “The give and take of ‘No.’” As always, her comments are insightful, thoughtful and prompt me to consider my own thoughts more […]

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