Saying No Isn’t Being Mean

I recently wrote about my experience meeting Jim Balsillie that garnered some attention. The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I wanted to share something related that I commonly struggle with.

Saying no to things isn’t being mean. Yet we often feel it is, and it drives people to not be fully honest when asked for something. Despite the fact that it comes with good intentions, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a frustrating ‘slow no’. Drawing out the inevitable with a maybe doesn’t do any good.

It always feels nicer to avoid saying no, even if you aren’t willing to say yes. But the reality we all live with is that everyone has limited resources, primarily among them is time. We can’t say yes to everything, so we’re always prioritizing: people, responsibilities, desires, etc.

Given this is a universally shared experience; you’d think it’d be easy to just be honest about it. But let’s get real, if someone asks to have a coffee with you, you wouldn’t feel great saying, “I’d like to, but I’ve prioritized other things above you.” Or simply “I care about other things more than you.” That’s probably a little terse.

The point is, saying no isn’t fundamentally mean. It’s either how we say it, or when we avoid saying it, that often can be. Leaving actual instances of mal-intention aside, as long as we are kind and respectful when we do it, we shouldn’t feel so encumbered by the act of saying no. As with my experience with Mr. Balsillie, unless you really intend to follow through, it’s the nicest option at your disposal.

I say all of this with the painful acknowledgement that I mess this up all the time, either by giving the ‘slow no’, or by saying no in the wrong way (most of the time unintentionally…). My hope is that talking about it openly will help me improve, and also be mindful of it when people say no to me. Most of the time it’s not malicious or mean-spirited; it’s just pragmatic. And reminding ourselves of this might help avoid jumping to conclusions, except when offered sufficient evidence to believe otherwise.

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