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Q&A with Vanessa Patrick, author of The Power of Saying No

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Vanessa Patrick, whose book, The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No That Puts You in Charge of Your Life, is coming out today (June 1, 2023). Vanessa is a professor of marketing, Associate Dean for Research, and Lead Faculty for the Executive Women in Leadership Program at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Vanessa Patrick, whose book, The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No That Puts You in Charge of Your Life, is coming out today (June 1, 2023). Vanessa is a professor of marketing, Associate Dean for Research, and Lead Faculty for the Executive Women in Leadership Program at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.

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I had several “a-ha” moments during this interview about our difficulty in saying “no” and the massive benefits to our happiness when we learn to do it better (and more). I know I learned a lot about the importance of saying “no” – although I’m glad I said “yes” to the chance to chat with Vanessa.

Annie: How does the culture view saying “no”, and how do we internalize that view?

Vanessa Patrick: The first part of the book addresses precisely this issue. “No” is a socially dis-preferred response when someone asks you to do something or go somewhere. They’re generally expecting a “yes.” Saying “no” goes against that expectation, which makes it very hard to say “no.”

I identify three main reasons why that two-letter word is so difficult for people. First is a concern for relationships. We care really deeply about being liked by other people, that we are in the social group, that we are conforming to the expectations of the social group. Second is our concern for reputation. People want to feel like they’re competent, that they’re on the ball, that they have everything in control and so can handle everything that comes their way. Third, I think through the years being socialized to not say “no,” we have never learned how to say those words effectively. We don’t always do it in the best way. You can come across as rude if you don’t do it in the right way. What my book is trying to say is that you need to say “no,” but you also need to say it in a particular way that maintains your relationship with the other person and secures your reputation.

Annie: Why shouldn’t we just say yes to everything? Why is it important to get good at saying no?

Vanessa Patrick: Because we have very limited time, energy, and other resources to dedicate to things that are important to us. If we have important things that we want to do with our lives, we have to prioritize those things.

Everything’s a tradeoff. You say “yes” to one thing, you say “no” to something else, or you compromise the things that are important to you. There are so many people I meet on a regular basis who have grand plans for themselves that are postponed to some indefinite future because they are currently totally absorbed with doing the minutiae.

In my classes, I challenge people and say, “Show me your calendar and let’s look at whether your calendar is reflecting your priorities.” And if it’s not, then you need to be thinking about why that is. I think a core reason for saying no is that you get to do what’s meaningful and important to you. When you do that, you are happier, less stress, more fulfilled, all the good stuff.

Annie: Can you describe a bad way to say “no,” and then offer us a good way to say “no”?

Vanessa Patrick: A lot of the research that I draw on is based on the language that we use. For example, we can use disempowered language, which is grounded in temporary excuses. In my own research, I’ve contrasted empowered language versus disempowered language. A less effective way of saying no is making it seem like your “no” comes from some sort of external force. When we use words, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it because ….”

Let’s say someone asked me to write a blurb for their book. I could say, “I’m sorry, I really can’t because I’m so busy,” and give you a whole range of excuses. That is not an effective way of saying “no.” I come across as not in control of the situation. I come across as leaning on an excuse.

While an excuse works in the short term, excuses are, by nature, temporary. We show that in our research by looking at temporary decisions. Let’s say, for example, you are on a diet because you are going to be a bridesmaid at a wedding and you say, “I can’t eat cake for the next couple of weeks because I’m watching my weight for this wedding.” That’s a very temporary no

Going back to responding to someone asking for a blurb, a more effective “no” than “I can’t” is “I don’t.” If I say, “I don’t write blurbs for books that I have not read,” or “I don’t write blurbs in the summer,” that reflects a personal policy, a rule that I’ve laid out for myself. An effective “no” stems from your identity because it is stating a “no” based on rules that you have set out for yourself. It is a “no” that communicates that you have thought through these issues and have a structure that forms the foundation of your “no.”

But when you say, “I don’t,” it has to be permanent, linguistically as well. You can’t use the word for a short-term decision. It has to reflect a long-term kind of commitment to a rule.

Annie: I’m thinking about category decisions and how much more effective they are in getting us to stick to things. You can think about saying something like, “I want to eat less sugar.” But that means that every time you’re looking at a menu, every time you’re choosing to eat something, you’re having to reprocess this decision as, “Is this the time that I’m going to eat sugar or not?” If you’re deciding about a category, like saying to yourself, “I don’t eat sugar,” it’s easier to stick to it.

Vanessa Patrick: What you call category decisions, I refer to in the book as “personal policies.” You have these rules in place. For example, I don’t take calls between six and eight in the evening. That is a rule. I think that people respond to that. That’s what I’ve shown in the experiments, that when you make a rule that stems from something you’ve decided, that you put in place for yourself, then you get more compliance from the other person.

My notion of personal policies is similar to what you talk about in Quit about the role of mental budgets. You can set up a mental budget for yourself, and it becomes a personal policy. I drink zero drinks at a work party and one or two drinks at a regular party. You have these mental budgets and then they help guide your actions in the moment. I think it’s not only helpful for self-regulation, as we’ve seen in the literature, but it’s also results in less decision fatigue because at the end of the day, you have these rules in place. You don’t have to spend time and invest effort each time you encounter these issues.

Annie: Isn’t the yes-no decision also fraught with complications, such as the idea of thinking of cooperation as an exchange? Part of saying “yes” is the expectation that you’ll get a “yes” back when you need it later. And that if we say “no,” particularly in the wrong way, we may be losing social capital.

Vanessa Patrick: You see that, especially with people who are trying to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurs, for example, they never want to say, “I don’t do certain things,” because they always feel like, if I close this door, I might be losing a lot of opportunities. This is why I come up with “Three Competencies” in the book, for how to develop a structure to guide your actions and decisions, which also helps your “no” come across as more empowered and more effective.

The first one is self-awareness, reflecting on developing this insight for yourself about how you want this to be in the future. How do I remove this pain point? Why, each time I look at a menu, do I have to decide whether I’m going to eat dessert or not? Or do I have a rule that I don’t eat dessert during the week? This deepened self-awareness definitely helps with the rule making. The second one is the personal policies, which we already discussed. The third is the fact that refusal is a whole-body communication. Because a refusal is essentially an act of communication, it’s not only the words that you use that matter. It’s also the nonverbals. How you say “no” does matter and you can buffer a “no” response with nonverbals. I talk about different gestures. I talk about the fact that we can very often leak power from our nonverbals. Even though we can use empowered words, if our nonverbals don’t come across as empowered, then we are going to not come across as effectively.

Annie: It seems like refusal over email is going to be better because then you don’t have that worry. But if you can’t refuse over email, can you give an example of an unempowered “no” leaking power? And then an empowered “no”?

Vanessa Patrick: I refer to one of the unempowered ways as the wishy-washy no’s. Let’s say someone asks you, “Annie, can you organize a retirement party for so-and-so?” And you say, “I can’t because I’m super busy with my dissertation, but if you really need me to, then I’ll try to adjust my schedule.” The person leaves not knowing whether it’s a “yes” or a “no.” You’ve provided a whole bunch of excuses and both of you are left in this zone where it’s unclear where you stand. I talk about the importance of communicating a “no” response extremely clearly, so that the person knows that it is “no.” That’s number one, concrete and clear.

A better “no” is one that stems from your identity. You’re working on your dissertation, it’s important to you, and you’re not going to take on anything that’s going to interfere with that. It stems from you expressing your beliefs, your priorities, your preferences, and your values.

And, obviously, you come across confident, strong, your body posture, you’re not looking away, you’re looking straight at the other person. You’re not embarrassed, you’re not hunching. A whole bunch of nonverbals can come into play that can be used for and against you. For example, while you’re talking about this dissertation, let’s say it’s in a text, you could be putting a smiley face, you could buffer that refusal with confident emojis. You could also diminish that refusal with your less confident or less empowered body language.

Annie: You got me thinking about something from something that happened in my professional life that made me change my personal policy. Prior to the pandemic, it was very hard for me to say “no” to offers involving professional commitments. When the pandemic hit, one by one, every one of those commitments that were pending got canceled. What I found was that every cancellation made me happier. I say “no” to a lot more things now. How can we get to that place without having a pandemic come along to make us assess those things?

Vanessa Patrick: One of the things I do in the book is I come up with a framework categorizing the ask. I focus on the cost to me. What is the cost to me for doing this? Then, weigh that against the benefit for the other person and making judgments based on that.

The other point I make in the book is that when we do say “yes” and we resent it, we have all these coping mechanisms that kick in, so we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to learn to say “no” the next time this comes about. We will not do it because we’ll keep searching for those silver linings and finding reasons why this is okay that we said “yes.” I emphasize that if you feel resentful, you need to embrace that resentment and say, “I hate this. I am really, really unhappy taking this on. Never again do I want to do this.”

Annie: You use that moment to create a personal policy.

Vanessa Patrick: Yes, exactly. This also relates to opportunity cost because, when you do say “no,” you should revel in the fact that you have created this opportunity. I have a friend who does this. If he says “no” to something like traveling across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver because it’s too much, he essentially puts it in his calendar that he could have been potentially at the airport and waiting for a flight. Reward yourself for saying “no” by reveling in the fact that you are doing something that’s more important and meaningful to you in the time that you would otherwise be doing this painful task.

Annie: Just to be clear, when we think about “doing something that’s more important and meaningful,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be making an amazing contribution to the world.

Vanessa Patrick: No. You could be drinking a glass of wine, enjoying yourself.

Annie: Let me ask you something that I imagine some people might ask you as a pushback on what you’re saying: Is this just an excuse to be selfish?

Vanessa Patrick: I’ve thought about that issue. I think that it is not selfish to say “no” to the things that you are not suited to do. In fact, it’s the asker that’s being selfish. The asker just wants it done. I’ve been in a situation where I found out after taking on this huge task that I was the seventh person that they asked. That didn’t feel good to know that seven people had said “no,” and I was probably their last resort. It’s not selfish to say “no” to things that you shouldn’t be taking on in the first place.

I think, in many ways, this is a matter of reframing this to yourself that what you take on should be joyful, give you happiness, and feel meaningful. And you shouldn’t clutter your days with things that are just busy work, things that don’t make you happy.

Annie: My last question – actually, I have a lot more I’d like to talk about, but this is the last question I have time for – is, how do you say “no” to people who will not take “no” for an answer?

Vanessa Patrick: The difficult askers. There are some people who you can give an empowered “no,” but it’s all about them. They are the selfish ones. Number one is spotting them. How do you spot a selfish asker or a pushy asker? How do you deal with them? How will they respond? They could bully you. They could continue to insist. They could guilt you into saying yes. These are the strategies that these people use.

I use a euphemism, a moniker for these types, called the walnut tree. The idea of the walnut tree is essentially this. The North American black walnut tree is this tree that is dominates the landscape. It’s a very powerful tree. The reason why these trees dominate the landscape and is because they have a toxin that they exude into the soil called juglone that stunts the growth of everything around it. Instead of calling people jerks or bullies or assholes, I basically say that these are walnut trees, and we have to learn to spot the walnut trees, and we need to be able to recognize walnut trees for who they are and learn to push back against their walnut tree-ness.

Annie: Okay, I have to ask a last last question. Imagine I’m a walnut tree and I’ve asked you for something. I tell you I’m not going to take “no” for an answer. If I keep hounding you if I don’t accept, how do you say “no” to me?

Vanessa Patrick: One is, I will convert this to a digital conversation. I will email you and I will state my personal policy. Putting technology as a buffer is a very good strategy with a walnut tree, converting a face-to-face to an email. The other thing is to delegate the ask to someone else to say “no” on your behalf. At some point, you have to stand your ground and repeat and repeat and repeat until the walnut tree hears you. One person I spoke to said that every time the walnut tree became louder, she became softer. And became so interesting how that contrast in the vocal volume made the walnut tree recognize what they were doing.

Annie: I love that, because what that points out is that as much as we are worried that we might be being selfish if we say “no”, we have to remind ourselves that the asker is often the one being selfish. That seems true of walnut trees. They are being selfish about your time.

I have learned so much from this conversation and I know my readers will, too.

Vanessa Patrick: Thanks, Annie.

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