Navigating the Tangle of Yes and No

My son and his high school volleyball coach had a lot of challenges. Over two seasons, I watched as the coach mockingly imitated my son in front of a large group of spectators attending a tournament and yelled at my son at almost every game. I saw my son struggle to stay calm in front of the coach, only to cry in frustration when we got to the car. The maltreatment from the coach was relentless and, according to the teammates in their private SnapChat sessions, especially directed towards my son. At the end of his second season, I approached one of the coaches to try to talk with them about what was happening and was shocked at the response. Several times during that conversation, the coach asked if my son would consider attending their church, stating that kids who struggle often do well in the Christian environment. I remember standing, infuriated, not knowing how to respond. I was clear that my agnostic son, whose grandparents were both survivors of Germany’s concentration camps, would not want to go to church.  And it was also clear that if I were to say no to the coach’s request to join their youth church program, my son would continue to experience the painful discrimination to which he had been subjected. In that moment, I was aware how difficult it could be to say no to someone’s request. I was navigating the social norms that suggest I acquiesce, my own conditioning that leads me to often agree to others’ requests, and the very real fears that saying no would have ongoing negative consequences for my son. With fear and sadness and determination all whirling inside me, I let the coach know that my son would not attend the church youth group, and walked away.

As the next season began and the negative treatment continued, I talked to my son again about what was happening. I was seeing this as a social justice issue and wanted to bring what was happening to the attention of those who had power to influence the situation.  When I talked with my son about these options and asked him if I could go to the principal, I was sure he would agree. In fact, the request was loaded – I, a parent with legal and structural power in the relationship, was strongly advocating seeking intervention and the “right” thing to do would be to stand up to people who were treating him so badly. My son visibly struggled then said he not want me to speak to the principal. He was afraid that if we did, the coach would be fired, leaving the team without a coach and unable to compete in the season. How could I accept his no, knowing it would mean another season where not only would my son suffer, but the coach’s egregious behavior would continue unchecked?! After more dialogue, we landed on a strategy – we would document incidents and, when the season was over, make a complaint so the school would have an extended period to either work with the coach to change his behavior or find a new coach.

These incidents brought up the dilemmas that are inherent in navigating interactions in a world where people are empowered to make requests. When the coach made the request of me, and when I made the request of my son, it became clear that, without a true willingness in the one making a request to hear a no, the request can land as part of an all too familiar dynamic.  Most of us have been taught that when strategies are in conflict the world operates as a zero-sum game: either my needs are met or yours are.  Most of the time, which of those two possibilities will play out is determined by who has more power in the relevant context, especially in a world where most of us have been conditioned away from our capacity to say “no.”  As we grow our capacity to ask for what we want, support for other people’s “no” must also grow, otherwise requests can wield an oppressive force on those of us who have been conditioned not to bring our needs to the table or who find ourselves in a position of less power.

The questions of how to support another person’s authentic response to my requests are ones that I’ve struggled with on my NVC path.  I was raised to be independent, to not “be a burden.” I remember hearing over and over the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.”  Making requests was completely foreign to me. Once I became more adept at asking for what I needed, I began to realize how difficult it was for me to hear what other people wanted without making it a demand of myself!  When we receive a request as a request we tend to feel spaciousness inside ourselves for our own “no,” and trust the other person to receive our “no” with empathy. For me, saying no always used to be painful. Rediscovering and owning my “no” has been key to creating a culture of Nonviolence within myself and in relationship to my needs. What are some of the barriers that make it so difficult to own our “no” and receive requests in the spirit they are offered?

One common barrier is our worry that saying no would lead the asker to think we don’t care about them. We conflate meeting someone’s request with meeting their need for mattering. This is not surprising; in a zero-sum game where there’s no connection to the needs underneath our strategies, if someone says no to our strategy we tend to hear it as if they’ve said no to us. For example, I love baking and often bring goodies to meetings. One day,  a friend casually mentioned they hoped I was bringing some to our team meeting the next day. I had been planning to spend the day with my kids before leaving for a week and would already would be up late that night preparing. But, how could I say no!? They might think I didn’t like them, didn’t care that they enjoyed my baking, didn’t want to contribute to their happiness!  I said sure, then stayed up all night making regular treats, and gluten free treats, and vegan treats, all because I didn’t want anyone in the group to have a sense their needs didn’t matter. Even for such a small request, I was afraid that if I said, “No, I need time to prepare for my trip and I want to be rested before I leave,” the person would think I didn’t care about them!

Now, if I want to say no to someone’s request, knowing the human tendency to conflate one’s mattering with a no, I can offer some empathy for the important thing they’re looking for by making the request or I can try to explain the needs I am meeting by saying no. Both of these responses help convey to the person that they matter to me fundamentally, even if it doesn’t work for me to fulfill their request. The essential thing is to stay focused on holding the needs and not get hung up on the strategy!

On the flip side, how often have you asked someone to do something and when you got a no thought you weren’t important to them or that they didn’t care about the things that were important to you? It can be extremely difficult to hold open the possibility that we matter to someone when they’re telling us no, especially when we’re asking for something we really want or when our sense of mattering has been wounded. If, however, we are able to entertain the thought that their “no” might have nothing to do with a lack of care for us, we often find more flexibility and space for what they’re communicating. For instance, when my son said no to my request to speak to the principal, old patterns might lead me to fear that he thought I would be ineffective, or he didn’t see how hard it was for me to watch him struggle.  Instead, I might wonder, “If he is saying no to my request, what is he saying yes to? Is he concerned about the impact on the team if the coach were to be fired? Is he dreading ongoing interactions with the coach while the administration reviews the situation, when I will not be present as a buffer?”

I can make it easier for others to give me an authentic response by letting them know my request is not a proxy for determining whether or not I matter. I can imply this by explicitly welcoming their no, or by letting them know that I have other strategies I can use.  By affirming that what’s real for them is more important to me than getting exactly what I’m asking for, I can support their trust that I will stay connected to their care for me even if they say no. In making my request of my son, I might have added, “I get you know how important it is for me that the coach’s behavior stops. And, I want to hear some of the pros and cons you are considering that I might not even be aware of as we decide what to do.”

Another hurdle to overcome  is  that many requests are actually not requests; they are demands in disguise.  Many of us have had the experience of saying no to someone, then having to deal with fallout ranging from temporary awkwardness to severe punishments and the loss of relationships or jobs. The fear of the consequences of saying no is especially true when the person making the request has more structural power than the person receiving the request. It’s difficult for a child to say no to a teacher, and for an employee to say no to a supervisor, both because of the consequences the teacher and supervisor can inflict and because of the student’s and employee’s past experience of people in similar positions doing so.  When I was in grad school I had a disagreement with one of my professors over a minor issue – so minor I don’t even remember what the issue was. What I do remember was that for the rest of my career in grad school, this professor dismissed any ideas I had, complained about me to other professors, and even tried to get me dismissed from the program. I was deeply fortunate that other professors were willing to stand up for me. Had they not, the cost my professor would’ve inflicted on my life for that single, small “no” would’ve been huge. After that experience, I was terrified anytime I thought about saying no or disagreeing with any professors in that program.

We’ve all experienced very real negative consequences when we say no to, or disagree with, people in our lives, especially those who have more power than we do. If we’ve had power over others it’s almost certain that at times we’ve used it coercively, consciously or not. Learning how to make requests and say no in a needs-connected way doesn’t make that dynamic disappear.  The reality is that what has led us to feel how we feel about what we need, whether or not we trust that what we need exists or that we deserve it, and what happens inside of us when someone says we can’t have it, is a profoundly complex tangle of family history, economics, politics and culture. If we want a little change, if we’re just looking for things to be a little smoother with an intimate partner or with a colleague at work, there are some very handy language tools and perspectives you can readily apply with a bit of study. If however we’re looking for paths forward that will shift the foundations of our experience of need, desire, and our ability to say “no,” we’ll need to dig deeper.

The first step is to do our own inner work. I struggle with how to balance asking for something I really want, while also creating the space for the person to say no. I used to either make an anemic, weak request, afraid to let you know how much I wanted the thing I was asking for, or I’d make a request so full of intensity that it would often land as a demand.  Now, when I know I’ll be making a request, especially a high-stakes request, I try to slow down and do some inner work first. If I recognize that making a request is actually my attempt to find a strategy that will meet a need, I give myself the time to reconnect with the need. What is the deeper aim I’m trying to accomplish? What need is so alive and precious to me?  Once I’m really holding that need, I try to identify more than one strategy that could meet that need. If I have several people I can approach to meet that need, or several other ways I could get that need met, then I can stay connected to the full intensity and vulnerability of my need without the desperation or hopelessness I often feel when I have only one way to meet it. When I do this work before going to someone with a request, I find it becomes easier to let them know what I’m trying to accomplish, and to show how much it matters to me.  My energy in making the request comes across quite differently when I think a specific person is my only chance for getting my need met, than when I realize there are indeed other options available to me.

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Navigating this tangle of making requests also requires me to realize it’s not really about the words I use. No matter what I say, at one level or another people who grew up in coercive parenting and educational systems will be managing or succumbing to, internalized relational blueprints drawn from their experiences in those systems.  Especially when there has not been a long-term relationship with me in which they experience their full authenticity being welcomed with curiosity and care, saying the right thing will not be enough. I have found it helpful to at least name that dynamic. Letting people know, “I’m guessing it could be impossible to trust I’m really open to hearing what would truly work for you.  I know it’s hard for me to say no to people sometimes, because I worry about the impact on our relationship. Knowing we can be real with each other helps create the kind of relationships I can relax in, and that’s more important to me than getting a yes from you right now.  Is it at all helpful to hear me say that?” Even having said this, it might be that nothing changes, however I have hope that by surfacing this dilemma we all find ourselves in, the other person might be willing to risk stretching into their authenticity. If I don’t say anything at all about the dynamic, I run the risk that we’ll both continue, unquestioning, on the all too familiar path of submission, rebellion and resentment.

The one thing I have learned is that making requests while ignoring some of these dynamics does not make the dynamics go away. In fact, my increasing power with making requests and asking for what I want means, just like at the grocery store, I can actually benefit from other people’s discomfort with facing the consequence of saying “no.” If I really want to embody a power-with consciousness, one in which people are truly joyfully giving and receiving, I need to actively take steps to invite people’s authenticity. Just like stepping out of moralistic judgment and into needs-consciousness was when I first learned NVC, doing so may be awkward and uncomfortable. But, the benefits of knowing that a yes to my request is fully meant makes the discomfort worthwhile.

I end with two requests to you, dear reader.  I love feedback. Would you take a moment right now to send me your thoughts about this article? What resonated with you? What insights did you get?  What other barriers do you run into when you want to make a request that is truly heard as a request?

And, I’d enjoy meeting you at one of my next trainings. Would you take ten minutes to read about the Living Peace Retreat and the BayNVC Immersion Program? I’m hoping when you do, you’ll be inspired to come join me!

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