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Snake on: The Power of ‘No’

Our columnist addresses the complex nature of boundaries ahead of our June Zoomcast.

July 2021’s Wisdom Track Podcast takes a deep dive into how to simply say ‘no’. All welcome: click here to register and receive the Zoom call link

What don’t you understand about NO? 

Minimalist at only two letters, NO! may be the most complicated word in human history. Somewhat of a linguistic multi-purpose tool, mastery requires lifelong discipline.

NO holds the curious distinction of being among the first words we learn as children. Repeated frequently by adults, and used for a wide range of applications from “No you can’t stay up” to “No, don’t flush the cat.” 

A specific definition is elusive; a basic internet search provides little beyond etymology. NO tends to be situational. “NO, don’t do that” differs greatly from, “NO, I refuse to do that.” It’s used to express genuine concern or alarm, “NO, don’t touch the hot stove” or as a test to measure our authority, “NO, because I said so.” 

We learn NO is malleable and useful in negotiation. 

Child, “NO, I won’t eat broccoli.” 

Parent, “Eat your broccoli or NO dessert.”

Child, “How much broccoli?”

Reactions vary. Some respond to NO with hurt feelings, tears or tantrums, while others hear NO as a direct challenge and counter instantly with attitude, “Can’t make me.” 

Although introduced to the word during childhood, confusion increases when we take NO for a walk in the adult world.

Those working in sales learn to hear NO as an invitation to further dialog. Popular sales wisdom is to get a minimum of three NOs before moving on. In the sales mind NO is temporary, an obstacle to be cleared. 

A job applicant upon hearing, “NO! We’ve filled the position,” understands the NO is definite. It can be emotionally challenging to encounter NO at work or in social settings. The unsuccessful job applicant may walk away feeling the sting of rejection, discouraged or even angry. Yet in this case NO means NO. 

In the realm of intimate adult relationships, family, friends or lovers, the word carries even greater emotional impact. When those we rely on for connection and support deliver a firm “NO” we often respond with confusion.

“What do you mean NO? You never said NO before. I don’t understand.”

Complexity surrounds NO like a dust storm in the desert 

NO can mean: I won’t, you can’t, no way, not really, maybe, and in certain circumstances NO can even mean YES. 

Two letters of the alphabet not to be underestimated, NO can be persuasive, controlling, inhibiting and potentially liberating. NO has earned a reputation as a linguistic giant capable of bridging language, dialect and culture, free to roam the entire globe. 

Yet the examples I’ve offered so far fall pitifully short of detailing the expansive influence this one humble word has to govern our actions. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the NO we speak (or refuse to speak) to ourselves when alone and facing the mirror. 

The self-imposed NO. 

NO to the leftover chocolate cake waiting patiently in the fridge.

NO to endless midnight internet searches.

NO to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

This annoying NO plays a key role in a largely solitary dialog governing our behaviour, habits and preferences. Setting and maintaining boundaries with others is a snap compared to self-imposed boundaries, and further complicated by the often-pitiful response, “But I want to.”

The self-imposed NO ranks among the most challenging to ignore, difficult to respect and at times nearly impossible to speak.

A wise elder offered me counsel regarding this inner dialog –

“Imagine an angel whispering in your right ear and a devil in the left. Both equally opinionated, they constantly speak over one another, offering advice as to how you should proceed.”

“Plugging your ears is not an option, the only way to quiet them down is to listen to what they have to say and honestly consider the advice they offer.”

“The devil’s suggestions tend to be self-centred, hungry, greedy and at times hostile. The angel can’t bear the suffering of others, is generous to a fault and far too eager to sacrifice. The two couldn’t be more different. Your challenge is to build a life somewhere between the devil and the angel.”

NO plays a critical role when we straddle the line between better instincts and selfish desires. At times siding with the devil or agreeing with the angel we wobble back and forth until NO settles the argument. Only then do the whispering voices fade into the background. (Until the devil and angel find something else to bicker over.)

Perhaps the NO with the most destructive force is the one we swallow.

NO, you’re not:

Smart enough

Pretty enough

Rich enough

Talented enough

NO, you just don’t measure up… Gulp.

Nocturnal by nature, this NO usually heard in the wee hours of the night has managed to convince many a man and woman not to even try. It’s drained them of ambition, and topped them off with insecurity. 

Equally destructive is its sidekick, the NO we believe absolutely needs to be said but swallow instead of speaking up… Gulp.

Hands down, NO! is certainly the most complicated word in human history.

So, what exactly do you still not understand? 

‘Snake’ Bloomstrand is BAAM’s special advisor. Read his recent columns on your inner child here, relationships here and on lockdown here.

8th June 2021

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