Saying “No” Takes Practice: Here’s Some Practical Help

How can you say no to this face?
How can you say no to this face?
How can you say no to this face?

You’ve just returned from summer vacation, rested, refreshed, and raring to go. Saying “no” doesn’t feel as necessary as it did when you were exhausted.

Then the phone rings. “Welcome back! Hope it was fun. Listen…I’m looking for someone to serve as Yearbook sponsor this year. Don’t worry, the kids will do all the work. They only need someone to answer questions and provide a little support.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Your knee jerk response is yes. Come to think of it, your knee jerk response is almost always yes. Saying no can feel so much harder.

Time out. Let’s talk about that.

The American “Yes”

Why are we so quick to say yes? Because we’re Americans. It’s the American way to be optimistic. Add to that confident, decisive, direct, and you’ve got a mirror image of the the American Dream, shining back at you from your habitual “yes.”

Americans think of ourselves as a nation without limits. Geographically speaking, this makes sense. For 75% of our country’s history, we have continued to add states to our union, growing from the original 13 in 1776 to the final 50 in 1959. Our geography has seen explosive growth.

No wonder we assume that our time boundaries will also expand to keep up with our good intentions. So we say yes–to extra-curricular activities, to extra work projects, to extra church activities, and all the other extras. We try to squeeze more and more into our 24 hour day, as if time were elastic. But it’s not. The hours in our day are a fixed commodity. They might seem to stretch if we push against them, but they can snap back quickly, leaving a sting.

What does this American Yes sound like? Quick. Glib. Cheerful. But listen carefully; this simple word can take on different meanings. See if you can learn to recognize them in your life:

  • The optimistic yes—I hope so
  • The friendly yes—I support you
  • The agreeable yes—I like your idea
  • The magical yes—Somehow it will work out
  • The flexible yes—I think I can squeeze you in
  • The superpower yes—I can do it all

Once we’ve said yes, it doesn’t end there. Embarrassment keeps us from being honest about our limits even after we’ve made the commitment. Instead of coming back and saying we’ve made a mistake, we make excuses. We drop the ball. We blame and complain. Or we pressure ourselves to do it all.

Our self-inflicted pressure of saying yes eventually wears us out. Is there a better way?

The French “No”

We could learn a lesson from the French, for whom saying “no” is both a national science and personal art form.

“In France, the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is ‘no.’”–Sylvia Sabes

BBC Travel Blog, “Why the French Love to Say No” by Sylvia Sabes

Their default “no” feels as natural to them as our “yes” does. It could sound knee jerk, unthinking, a one-size-fits-all-circumstances kind of answer. But it’s not. Sylvia Sabes identifies nuances in their negative response to every question.

Here are just a few of the things a French “no” could mean:

  • The ambiguous no—Not sure, it’s complicated
  • The bartering no—engage with me
  • The “don’t question my intelligence” no—I actually have no idea
  • The flirtatious no—a wink and a smile says “maybe”
  • The authoritarian no—don’t blame me if you’re an idiot
  • The reflex no—keep asking and I’ll eventually say yes

They say no, but don’t always mean it. We say yes, but can’t always deliver on it.

The Kingdom Answer

How can a Christian approach this topic, not as an American or a Frenchman, but as a citizen of a different kingdom all together?

First, we must know that our words matter. A knee-jerk “no” isn’t better than an automatic “yes.” When we need to give an answer to someone who asks for help, “let me get back to you” can be the best solution in the moment. That gives us time to think and pray and seek counsel. Then we will be ready with a firm, dependable “yes” or “no.”

But above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

James 5:12

Second, we must remember that time isn’t flexible. We can’t squeeze more things into our calendar without affecting what’s already there. A “yes” to one thing means a “no” to another thing. Maybe even two or three other things. That’s why Jesus exhorts us to “count the cost” before we begin a new venture. Costly service is a beautiful thing, but the costs must be calculated before we commit to a new project, so we can finish it.

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?

Luke 14:28

Third, we need to know our personal limits. Are you a morning person? Do you need time alone after a busy day with people? Can you catnap to recharge or does that make you feel wasted? God has assigned each of us an area of influence–the people, places, and tasks where we serve. Sometimes his assignment stretches us past our limits, however, self-inflicted pressure is another matter. Overextending ourselves isn’t faith, it is presumption. It can even be a form of boasting, implying “I’m so busy, look at me, at how much I can manage.”

But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you.

2 Corinthians 10:13

The King’s “Yes”

Finally, know your God. Many times we overextend ourselves because we are trying to prove something—that we are worthy or capable or even lovable. Proving ourselves is an endless quest that will wear us out. Only the love of God will satisfy the ache to know we matter. When we come to know God through Christ, we discover this surprise gift: we are already known by him, fully and completely. We only know him partially, so there’s plenty of room to grow. The better we know him, the more we will be able to rest in his love.

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Galatians 4:9

Sisters, we have nothing to prove. Let’s not be slaves to our “to do” lists, but daughters who know they are deeply and everlastingly loved.

This post is Part 3 of a four-part series on Kingdom Productivity.

You can find the rest of the posts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.

2 replies
    • Mark says:

      Glad to hear it…since “yes” is always on the tip of my tongue too. So much easier than “no” isn’t it?

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