Saying No and being Positive

People often feel bad when they say “No”. This is odd, when we were very small most of us took a delight in saying it loudly, positively and to suit our own convenience. Just observe a small child in a supermarket who wants to be somewhere else. He or she is rarely quietly accepting. Even violence or the threat of violence will not suppress the protest completely.

This behaviour is so common that I assume that the ability to say “No” without feeling bad about it is innate. We would not have survived as a species without individuals having this natural strength of will. If we are innately strong willed, but as adults find it hard to say no, then something must have happened to diminish this ability.

What has happened to us?

All children have to conform to some extent to the society that they are born into. There is a relentless pressure from the earliest age to “Be Good”. Being good means not disturbing the people around us, particularly our parents, and therefore to some extent giving up on ourselves. We had to being quiet when we wanted to be noisy and sleep when we want to learn.

Threats, violence or the withdrawal of love are often used to enforce “good” patterns of behaviour. Manipulation and bribery are also used. We were dependent on our parents so eventually decided to cave in to survive.

How does that affect the present?

If we have been coerced into conforming enough, we come to believe that we cannot have what we want and that we do not deserve it anyway. Thus it becomes difficult to ask for what we want and difficult to put what we want ahead of what someone else wants. We cannot say “No”. In extremes this can lead to timidity, dependency and masochism. More commonly people steel themselves to say “No” but then feel guilty about it. If you cannot say “No!”, you cannot say “Yes” (for yourself) either.

This can be disastrous in organisations, especially those with a dominant MD. The managers will “please” the MD by agreeing but never argue or produce real commitment.

What can we do about it?

It can be as rational to say “Yes” as to say “No”. The right answer depends on the circumstances. The goal of development work is to increase people’s flexibility so they can choose for themselves what to do. Painful emotion holds rigid patterns of behaviour in place. Change takes place when you express your feelings to another person who listens intently. It also follows when you do something positive that contradicts the rigid behaviour.

How does this work in practice?

People are more able to try out difficult things when there is a lot of support and the activity is relatively light hearted. Then they feel more relaxed it is not such a big issue. Let us suppose the client wants to say “No” to a last minute request from the boss to work late and miss his/her daughter’s birthday tea. You would help the client explore his feelings about the situation and the feelings of the other people involved. Then encourage him to say what he would really like to say to the boss if s(he) were not being polite! This will help to express the feelings of anger, frustration, sadness and fear. Then ask him to decide what he will say to the boss in practice and coach him through this. When the client says “I have decided that I will not work late on that day” in a confident tone of voice, he strengthens his will.

Is this approach applicable to other issues?

Yes it is. As young people we had many abilities which would be valuable for us, and our organisations, to have now. These abilities have been largely lost through the blind and unthinking working of our society. Supportive counselling and coaching can help us recover them too.

The resources of childhood

Organisational needs Children’s abilities
Rapid learning to cope with ever increasing rates of changeThey are brilliant at this
Creativity and imagination to respond cleverly to changing demandsThis is play, the natural way children learn
Courageous communicationLearn from a three-year-old child!
Zest and enthusiasmThese are the qualities of childhood


I want to support parents. Parenting is the most difficult job there is. It is entirely unrecognised by money or status. Parents are an oppressed group and deserve our love and practical help.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick