The harsh beauty of “no”

Some people are afraid of the word “no”. It makes sense to fear the rejection, refusal or lack of interest shown by that word. If you’re trying to achieve something, a “no” is a setback. It can be frightening on the other end too: being the person who delivers the “no” can make you feel terrible about yourself.

I see “no” very differently. In the past I’ve worked as a business-to-business telemarketer, and my telemarketing agency had rules: you are not allowed to give up on an organisation until the right person says no. Who is the right person? They’re called the “decision-maker” (which my agency, bafflingly, shortened to “DMC”) and they’re the person who has the power to decide whether they want to buy what you’re offering. Sometimes you find out their name after several calls; sometimes you never find it out.

Mostly, you never get to speak to them at all. Why? Because they know a “no” is worth something, and they’re damned if they’re going to give it to a cold-caller. So they refuse to speak to telemarketers, pretending over endless days, weeks and months never to be available when the telemarketer calls. The lack of a “no” from the right person can trap a telemarketer in limbo, endlessly doomed to keep ringing the same person and getting the same result. You feel like a ghost, someone who’s kept in a strange half-world by unfinished business that can never be finished. The lack of a “no” works with the agency’s inflexible systems so that the telemarketer is condemned to repeat the same mistake, the same fruitless task, over and over again until they leave their job. Refusing to give a “no” is not just a time-stealing tactic; it condemns the telemarketer to something very like how I imagine Hell.

I could give so many other examples. Have you ever applied for a job and heard absolutely nothing back from the organisation you applied to? There, the lack of a “no” keeps you wondering: have they shortlisted candidates yet? Are they being slow? Have they lost my application? Did they receive my application at all? Or have they simply decided that I am not worth a “no”?

When companies say “Unfortunately we cannot reply to unsuccessful applicants”, what they mean is: “You are not worth a no.” They mean that they are fine with leaving you to wonder what’s going on and effectively second-guess your own rejection, as long as they don’t have to put in the tiny amount of effort and resource it takes to send a mass rejection email to all the unsuccessful candidates. They want to push all the effort of rejection onto the rejected candidates, each of whom will individually put in more emotional effort (waiting, wondering, chasing) than it would have taken the company to definitively reject all the applicants together. In the case of job applications, a no is a gift. It tells you how you’ve done and it lets you move on. It saves you time and pain and second-guessing.

I’ve recently been trying to book a training course and I asked some friends if they were interested in going on it with me. A chorus of maybes and not-sures and silence and doubtful comments made me think they probably wouldn’t, but the possibility that they would was enough to make me turn down the offer to do the course on my own at short notice. Afterwards, I got two definite “no”s and I think I can second-guess the rest. But I’ve already missed out on doing the course and missed out on the short-notice booking discount I was offered, which could have saved me up to £100. I’ve lost opportunities, time and money because of my friends’ failure to say no.

And why couldn’t they say no? Because it’s hard. Because it makes you look like the bad guy. Because it forces you to make a decision you don’t want to think about. Because it makes you commit to something, even though you’re committing in the negative. Emotionally, it’s much easier to fudge the issue with silence or vagueness.

That’s why a “no” is a gift. It’s a compliment. It tells you that the other person has thought about what you’re offering, whether that’s “Want to come for a coffee tomorrow?” or a serious job application. It saves you time, emotional energy and sometimes money. It lets you move on. And you are worth it.

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10 Comments on “The harsh beauty of “no””

  1. janetmck Says:

    Yes! This!

    I have to keep reminding myself that I can sometimes give myself a backup “no”, e.g. “What do you want to do about [thing]? If I don’t hear from you by [date] I’ll do [sensible default action].” (I wish recruiters who weren’t prepared to email unsuccessful candidates would at least just do this: “If you haven’t heard from us by [date] then I’m afraid you’ve been unsuccessful this time; thanks for your interest.” It’s cold & impersonal but at least it puts a time-limit on the waiting game.)

    Harder to do this with social things, though, of course, unless it involves a booking for a restaurant or similar where you can pretend the “no” is coming from someone else (“The restaurant needs to know the final numbers by Monday morning”). I suppose I could say “I’m trying to plan a few different things over the next couple of weeks so please let me know by [date/time] otherwise I’ll assume you’re not free”, but I worry that it makes me look like the sort of person who carries a filofax around with them. Not that that’s a bad thing to do, of course! No. Just, you know.

    • gryphon Says:

      This is why assertiveness training/sales training/etc feels so deeply uncomfortable and “wrong”. But what we don’t realise is that this is because we’ve spent our lives being trained in the other direction: be polite, don’t be pushy, don’t value your own time. I’ve used the good old “The restaurant/venue/other person needs to know…” tactic many a time because it was easier than saying “I want to know…”


  2. […] else do we hate them? I think it’s also because they force us to say no. I’ve written before that a “no” is worth something, but the flipside of that is that it […]


  3. […] written before about how withholding a “no” can be an expression of power, a refusal to hand someone a gift that you have the power to […]


  4. […] of course, it’s a long-winded way of refusing to give you a no. If someone keeps saying “yes” but keeps failing to deliver on it, it’s another way of […]


  5. […] do believe that if you genuinely can’t do a task, or want to refuse it for whatever reason, a “no” is better than saying “yes” when you don’t mean it and then letting everybody down. But […]


  6. […] If you’re not going to do something, whether because you can’t or you don’t want to, say so sooner rather than later. The realisation that the magical period of my life “when I have more time” isn’t actually going to materialise for several years (if ever) has made it easier to give the gift of ‘no’. […]


  7. […] making decisions and the flipside of that cost, which is the value of making decisions. That’s why a “no” is worth something: because it means a decision has been […]


  8. […] When you’re dealing with someone who can’t decide on a joint matter, you realise that any decision that lets you move forwards is a gift. That’s what I meant when I wrote that “no” can be a gift. […]


  9. […] some more cognitive resource deciding whether or not I can/should/will do it, and then either saying no (which takes energy) or actually doing the thing. That’s really a lot to ask from someone when […]


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