Knowing when to say yes and when to say no

Many years ago, I was approached by a company that wanted me to be the representative of their coaching method in Finland. As a part of that process they invited me to take their test to find out exactly what kind of a person I was. It was a relatively short questionnaire and I admit I can’t really remember very much about it, except that based on the questions you were defined either as a ‘yes-sayer’ or a ‘no-sayer’. In the discussion that followed the test, it became clear that yes-sayers were considered good and desirable in the work environment, no-sayers weren’t. 

I was told I was a no-sayer.

I found this mildly amusing, although also somewhat irritating because based on the test they obviously didn’t know me at all. On the contrary, I have always had a hard time saying no, to a point of it actually being problematic for me, and especially around that time in my career I was definitely not one to say no in work situations. 

It seemed, however, that critical thought, which is so important in any situation, was easily translated to no-saying. Needless to say, in that situation I did have the presence of mind to say no and I didn’t take on the representation of their method. It was an easy decision, flattered as I was by their interest in me. I just didn’t believe in it. 

But always saying yes, being a yes-sayer as that coaching company would have it, isn’t necessarily always good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard mainly people in the corporate world talk about how they don’t want to work with people who always say no to anything new and innovative and that they want to have people around them who say yes. Yes, I can see the appeal of that, but let’s also not underestimate the value of having people around you who can think critically. 

I’ve actually had to practise saying no. I have easily ended up taking on too much, or just been dragged into things I don’t really want to be a part of just because saying no has been difficult for me. A former colleague of mine used to celebrate the times she managed to say no and made a mark in her calendar. 

But just like always saying yes, saying no all the time isn’t good either. If we always say no we never take any risks and we never find ourselves on unexpected but meaningful and potentially successful paths. We never do anything out of our comfort zone and we may miss important opportunities that may not have been on the horizon.

The trick is to know when to say yes and when to say no. In fact, a wise friend of mine, Amanda Backholm, said the other day that knowing when to say yes and when to say no is actually a superpower. 

Those who follow me know that when I’m not doing research, I paint on silk and it has become a second job for me. It’s deeply fulfilling, not to mention fun, and I’m thankful every day that I had the presence of mind to just let it happen when the opportunity presented itself. I ignored all those voices of doubt in my head and I quickly said yes to queries of commissions and exhibitions before I could change my mind. 

I don’t always get it right, I’m not sure whether I have that superpower or not. Maybe that is something I will know only when looking back at this part of my life. 

However, getting it right every time isn’t crucial. Every once in a while, you will miss an opportunity you should have taken, or turned something down that you maybe shouldn’t have. But don’t worry. Mistakes can be corrected, minds can and should be changed if needed, and new opportunities always come a long. There are many roads out there that you can take (if you want to), you just have to keep your eyes and your mind open in order to notice them. 

And if you just don’t want to, that’s fine too.

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