How To Say No

By Deryn Collier



Last week we learned that creative people say no. “Time is the raw material of creation,” we were told by a blog post buzzing around the internet. “…Nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation.”

But how exactly are we supposed to say no? For many of us, this is a much more difficult question. And for those of us who are both creatives and parents, saying no can be even harder. There are some things we quite simply cannot say no to.

And then there are those  many situations where we can say no, where we should say no, but we don’t. Why? Because writing and parenting are vocations with fuzzy parameters. These amorphous boundaries can spread to every area of our lives, without our awareness or permission. There are no union rules to protect us. No shop stewards to complain to. No overtime. No government-mandated breaks. Nothing to limit the guilt, obligation, expectation and perfectionism that drive us to say yes, even when that yes is not in the best interest of our children, or our creative work.

When you are a writer and a parent, the only way to make enough space to write is to stake your claim, then guard against all intruders – regardless of how innocent they look;  how harmless their request seems. It’s only one meeting.  Only a few dozen cookies. Only one weekend.  Only one sandwich. Only one practice, car pool, play date, soccer game, skating uniform, fundraiser, camp out, sleepover, committee. Only one.

Three (not so easy) steps to no

A few years ago, my massage therapist taught me, step by step, how to say no. She did this as she kneaded away the  rocks in my shoulders that I’m convinced hold the world together.  A preventative measure, perhaps, to save her own wrists in the long run.

It turns out that there are three steps to saying no.

Step 1: Acknowledge the request and the person making it.

“I appreciate you thinking of me. It sounds like you are involved in a worthwhile project.”

Step 2: Make no excuses.

“However it is not a fit for me right now.”

Step 3: Say no.

“And so the answer is no.”

This only works if you do it

I’ve been practicing this for a few years now, and it was definitely trial and error for a while there. A few things I’ve noticed over time:

Step 1 is a crucial. We all love acknowledgement, and when you take the time to really hear someone’s request and learn what they are doing and why, you are noticing them, learning about them and about what’s going on in your community. Some requests are a fit for you. Some things you can and want to do. Others, you choose not to. Listening to the request and acknowledging the person making it are the only ways to decide whether you want to do the thing, or not.

Step 2 is essential. Once you’ve heard the request, and have made the choice to say no, you do not need to make excuses. You can elaborate on Step 2 a bit, but not too much.  For example, you might say:

“I am working to a deadline right now and can’t fit this in.”

But do NOT say:

“I can’t! My kid is sick, my dog got sprayed by a skunk, I’m really busy these days and we had guests all weekend and if I don’t fit any writing time in I’m going to lose what’s left of my mind!”

Do not do this. “It is not a fit for me” is all you need to say. People rarely ask or pry beyond this. We are afraid they will, and so we rush in with excuses. In reality, once you’ve acknowledged them (Step 1), most people are  satisfied. And if they push? Just say it again:

“‘It’s just not a fit for me right now.”

You do not have to make excuses or justify how you choose to spend your precious time and energy.

Step 3 is the most important of all. You must say the actual “no”. For a long time I avoided Step 3. I would stop at Step 2. And here’s how that would go:

“Wow, thanks so much for thinking of me. It sounds like you are involved in a worthwhile project, but it’s just not a fit for me right now.”

And then, a few months, or weeks, or days, or (I’m not kidding) hours later, the requester would be back. “How about now? Is it a fit yet? Can you do it now?”

And I’d have to start all over again,  and we’d go merrily around in circles until I finally worked up the nerve to throw in Step 3.

No just means no

I used to worry I’d come across as a bitch. Selfish, self-centered, un-giving, un-generous. A cow. A plague on society. A no-good hanger on.

But that’s not the way it’s played out.

I’ve found instead that people really appreciate it when I say what I want clearly and directly, without guilt or anger or obligation. Even when what I want to say is no.

And, even more importantly, I appreciate it when I say no. I am not shirking  responsibility, but rather, taking my commitments seriously. I have committed myself, my time and my energy, to my family and to my creative work. I must have time for them, always. I may have time for other things, sometimes.

Now that I know how to say no, there are times when I actually welcome the opportunity. Each no reminds me that I am keeping the promises I have already made.


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5 Responses to How To Say No

  1. Pat says:

    Ha! I remember the first time I said at firm NO was while working at a bank, and I was asked to join a committee I was not interested in. I said no to my supervisor, and his response was “well, I really want you on it, so I was really only asking to be polite.” So much for that! But it didn’t deter me; I was later asked to join a local group, which I didn’t want to join, and said an emphantic “no, thank you, it’s not my thing” and was sincerely told “I admire your ability to say no.” It’s true, you don’t want someone saying yes when they are not dedicated to the organisation/event/charity and not pulling their weight.

    • deryncollier says:

      Yes, exactly, Pat! Who wants to sell cookies with a grumpy person? Thanks for visiting. I hope you and the crew are doing well.

  2. Doina says:

    Thank you for the advice, Deryn! Something I am in the process of learning but the way you put it sounds right. Work in progress. I hope it is not too late.
    Best wishes,

  3. Hazel Young Cumming says:

    Found your book, Open Secret, at Costco in London, Ont. When I read the words “Kootenay Landing” on the back cover I had to pick it up. Nelson, B.C. had to be involved…can’t wait to get into the reading thereof!


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