Say No, Survive, and Thrive

“You will work every hour that you’re not sleeping from now until the end of the project!”

Silence. Eyes shifted uneasily around the table. No-one spoke up.

Finally, after seeming aeons, me: “No. I won’t be working this Saturday.”

“Well, then, you’ll have to make the time up.”

We were all under pressure on this project, and in this early-morning meeting I realised that the chief operating officer (COO) felt it more directly than the rest of us.

This time the ludicrous nature of the situation was clearer – that no matter how much we might give, she would require more. Me again: “No.”

Yes, I mean no, I mean, er …

I normally struggle to say “no”. It’s not a word I’m particularly comfortable with. Every sinew in my body seems to twist towards helping the person making the request or demand, even before I know what’s right for me.

What was different about this time? I’d been practicing dancing under pressure.

The night before I’d attended my Aikido class in a foul mood, feeling the weight of this project hanging over me, and spent an hour spinning in under a friend’s sword cut (a strange exercise, but it makes us aware of the time and space available even under the blade). Carl was in training for his 3rd degree black belt, and as a result was totally committed in his attacks, so we were practicing at a very challenging level.

In the morning, across the boardroom table the COO had her arm out, finger pointing at us, and was cutting with every demand she made. Most of us bowed our heads to receive the inevitable chop that meant our lives weren’t our own for the duration of this project.

But, for me, something about this was very familiar – the shape and movement of her arm mirrored that of Carl’s the night before. And thus, I had access to the space underneath the blade of her fury. Suddenly, time to pause and think was available.

Exhausted after working for 24 hours straight, we were slightly shell-shocked and jittery from all the caffeine that had got us to the meeting. Nobody could get clarity about the best way forward either for us or the project.

That weekend I had a twice-yearly course with my head Aikido teacher. I wasn’t going to miss it for this project. And, at the same time, I knew that attending this course would make me a better colleague – both for taking a day off and for being inspired by my teacher. It was too valuable to me and to the company to be neglected. Thus, “no” was serving the needs of the project, and I was able to say it out loud.

It was as if a bubble had been burst, the COO’s furious presence collapsed and my colleagues one-by-one were able to say how they could best move the work forward. No-one offered to work every waking hour until the end of the project.

The magic of “no”

When I look back, I know that I am really lucky to have had this experience. It has subsequently informed all my important refusals since. The fortunate timing of Aikido class the night before the breakfast meeting, and the particular exercise that the teacher chose for us, made a bit of magic available precisely when it was most needed. And it’s been available ever since.

When I find myself in a corner faced by a request or demand that doesn’t sit well with me, I remember the space and time available under the dropping sword, and I breathe up from the floor to inflate a firm, dignified posture. Then as I breathe out, I am able to decide how complying with this request serves my goals – or, indeed the goals of the requestor. I speak only after connecting with my sense of the common good between us, and if saying “yes” doesn’t serve, I say “no”.

However, I realise that not everybody can or wants to experience the blade of a sword whistling down beside them. Even so, the same basic principles can be explored by all of us:

  1. Draw a long breath up into your vertebrae from the floor, inflating your backbone with space and dignity.

  2. As you exhale, soften your chest so that your ribcage hangs off the scaffolding of your spine.

  3. Become aware of the space around and above you, perhaps by feeling the heat coming off your body or by paying particularly attention to where the sensation of the limits of your skin is. (Sounds weird? Try it, it works.)

  4. Notice where else in your body you can relax without moving anything – for example, let gravity take the weight of your shoulders so they just hang naturally.

  5. Ask yourself what it would be like with a little more ease or playfulness in your body right now. Imagine how you might spin on your vertical axis if the demand was a push, like a revolving door. Get a physical sense of that fluidity.

  6. Know that, if you are saying “no” to this, you are saying “yes” to something else. What is that something else? Which fits more closely to with your greater purpose?

  7. Then, if you are sure that the request does not serve your purpose, say “no”.

It no longer felt like me standing against the request. Rather my sense was that I had a clearer perspective than the COO did, and that by saying no, I was helping her as much as myself.

And the project? It succeeded. We worked long but sane hours. And I got even promoted for standing up to the COO, when no-one else could. She even took me out to tea by way of thanks. Fancy that!

What about you? Do you have times that you want to say “no”, but find that you can’t, or that you struggle to do so calmly? Do you end up saying yes to things you don’t want to? If you’re interested in learning how to use your body to create a pause for breath and thought, I offer group and one-to-one coaching in Leadership Embodiment which uses the body to deepen your capacity to be present with conflict (whether inter- or intra-personal). You can book a free, no-obligation consultation with me.

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