Moving From Theory To Action

To support you in reflecting on your “no”, here are some reflection questions:

-How did my background (culture, gender, race, socio-economic status, education, work history, personal experiences, etc.) influence my relationship to saying no?

-To what extent can I appreciate how this perspective was trying to keep me safe?

-What are the risks and costs to saying and not saying no generally?

-From the voice of my inner wisdom, what do I want to remind myself the next time I want to say no?

To say no to a specific request:

-What is the yes, behind the no? For the sake of what do I feel I need to say no to this?

-What do I want to say/have them understand? (although “No.” is a complete sentence, so you may choose not to say more.)

-What might be my opening lines?

-How can I prepare your body to be centered (vs. tense, rigid, collapsed, etc.)?

Why Saying No is Good

This time of year always seems particularly full: work projects to be completed before summer begins in earnest, end-of-school activities, yard work and planting that needs tending and gorgeous weather that calls me to go outside for a bike ride, walk, or a casual drink with a friend. “Can-do” attitudes are admired at work and at home. Saying “yes” when someone asks you for something makes you a team player, an ideal employee, and an all-around productive human being. But in deeper reflection, maybe it’s doesn’t?  Taking on too much, losing priorities and trying to be something to everyone can not only leave an individual exhausted, but can compromise our personal capacity as well as the capacity of an organization.

This year at the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility conference, I co-presented a workshop on “Why Saying No is Good for Business.” Learning how to successfully navigate a “no” and communicate more honestly and effectively when given a request is an essential skill for everyone wanting to create balance and focus both in work and in life generally.

The first distinction I want to offer comes from Fernando Flores, an Argentinian professor, entrepreneur, politician and management consultant. He created a model on types of conversations, including Conversations for Action. In it, he asserts that there are five possible responses to a request, not just two, “yes” or “no”. (And many people, especially at work, may think that no isn’t an option, so there isn’t really much choice).

Responses to a request:

Request for clarification -For many of us this step is critical. I think I’m not alone in having said yes, and then realizing I don’t really understand what was asked for me, or it turned into something much bigger or different than I expected.

Ex: “I’m not completely sure what you’re asking for. Could you give me more specifics of the changes you want to see in this month’s report?”

Accept – The tricky thing here is for your “yes” to truly be a “yes.” Align your word and actions. When we say “yes” and then don’t follow through, it breaks trust and puts our integrity into question.

Ex: “Yes, I can do that by 4pm today.”

 Decline -Many people think that a “No” isn’t allowed or appropriate, but if we don’t say no to active requests sometimes, then we may be saying no to things that are actually more important to us. If I say yes to every non-profit board request, I’ll be at meetings most evenings, and then I’ll in effect be saying no to family dinner. Getting clarity around your “yes” behind the “no” can give you the grounding and energy to be willing to give the uncomfortable “no”.

Ex: For a tech-savvy person who gets asked to solve everyone’s computer problems: “I’m sorry, I know I’ve helped you with that before, but I really think you need to ask someone in IT about that.”

Counter Offer -This is helpful if you want to say yes to at least part of it, but you have other constraints or considerations. What I appreciate is that it’s more honest than making a promise you can’t keep. People would rather have the truth than to have you say yes, but then not fulfill. Counter offer is stepping into a negotiation to find common ground on what works for both of you.

Ex: “Sorry, I can’t get that to you today. However, I could get you a draft before my meeting starts at 2pm. Or alternatively I could get you a finished draft by 10am tomorrow.”

Promise to commit -For those situations when you just need a bit more time to process and consider the request, promise to commit offers a pause button to center and consider what you really want and can do. I often invite people who tend to be “automatic yes’s” to master this strategy.

Ex: “I need to check in with my supervisor first. Can I give her a call and get back to you in an hour?”

What I appreciate about this model is that if offers me more choice and agency in responding to a request.

That said, applying these strategies isn’t necessarily easy. Social context matters. This is the deeper aspect of understanding why no can be so difficult and why we all won’t just go forth with the above-mentioned suggestions. We need to recognize that our backgrounds and experiences are going to have a profound influence on how much agency we think or we have to say no. As an example, generally speaking, women are “supposed” to be helpful and kind- and saying no goes against the norm, and thus may carry greater negative consequences. One’s positional power (boss makes a request of subordinate) or social context-cultural upbringing, race, social status, education, etc. will all influence our relationship with “no”. What is the fear behind saying no? All of this comes into play. It makes it more complex than we’d probably like, but it needs to be considered when we enter this topic. See below for some more reflection questions.

Book Review: Pioneer Species

By: Ross Thurber

“Let winter sink into a soft spring night.
May valley fog rise to the foothills
and the foothills be buried in a purple cloak.”
-Excerpt from the poem, “Bell Foundry “

A book of poetry isn’t my typical book recommendation on leadership, but with the theme of nature, mud season, and Vermont, I wanted to offer this book as an opportunity to access a different way of learning through the beauty of words, slowly sipped. Ross is a dairy farmer and dear friend of mine, and this collection of his poetry takes you through the seasons as he lives them on his farm in southern Vermont. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I find his poems to be thought-provoking but not too obscure. Just like mud season, there are jewels and lessons to be learned through poetry if we can take the time to let the words unfold in their time.

Moving From Theory To Action

While it may not sound serious enough for a leadership topic, everyone has opinions about the weather (think about how much time at work is spent talking about it!). To support you in cultivating acceptance and patience for whatever weather you may get, here are some reflection questions:

To what extent do I notice myself complaining about whatever weather there may be (if it’s winter it’s too cold, if it’s summer, it’s too hot). What would it be like if I didn’t judge the weather?

— What is uniquely possible only in this weather that I can be grateful for? (I love the feeling of hiking in early spring when the air is warm on my face, but there is cool air coming from the snow beneath my feet).

— In which season do I have the hardest time being present and accepting? What is a mindset shift I can offer that might support me? What are some actions I can take to learn to appreciate this season more? (For example, I think about the farmers in early spring, and I wear a light green fleece hat in March to symbolize spring!).

What Mud Season Can Teach Us

It’s mud season here in Vermont, and it can be a tough time for me. As some of you know, I lived in Washington, D.C. for ten years. I have fond memories of March, when I’d had enough of winter, and spring swiftly came in with a warm breeze, bursting with beautiful tulips everywhere. It’s magical. Not so in northern New England- we just got slammed with two snowstorms this month, mixed in with raw rainy days and muddy roads with gravel-covered snow piles lasting into May. It was the hardest aspect of moving to Vermont for me. I realized I had to shift my thinking.

It is said that comparison is the root of all suffering, so if I keep comparing Vermont spring to that of Washington, it’s going to be painful. So I took a deep dive into the lessons that mud season has to offer, and I am cultivating the patience to enjoy the season without rushing it. For example, one of the greatest benefits of those forty-degree temperatures that drop down below freezing is that this is the necessary recipe for a great sugaring season. It’s the time of year we visit our friend’s sugar house and can taste still-warm maple syrup after it’s been boiled down from sap. I now think of our extended early spring as good for the farmers, and can appreciate and take comfort knowing that there is life flowing through the trees just underneath the bark that we can’t see. Spring has come in its subtle ways. Am I present to see the signs?

I recently gave a keynote address to a statewide organization titled “What Mud Season Can Teach Us About Living in Community and Organizations.” I’ve created a short promotional video from it and offer it here. In this clip you’ll see two lessons I’ve learned from mud season. It’s a bit of a risk to share it so widely, and I feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s also a way to share my thoughts. If you know of any organizations, companies, or events that might be looking for a keynote speaker to share some hopefully insightful and entertaining thoughts about Vermont mud as it relates to life, I’d welcome the introduction. Thank you! And cheers to mud season!

water-shed (watr'shed') Noun: a critical point that marks a division or change of course; a turning point — © 2014 WatershedCoaching. All rights reserved.