06/14/2010 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When 'No' Is Nice

"No" gets a bad rap. I mean ... most of us grow up thinking that "yes" is the nicer answer -- at least, to most questions. Then, when we say "no" we often feel bad, or guilty or somehow defensive. That's unfortunate, because "no" is often the kindest, most compassionate, and most constructive response available.

Consider a situation in which someone asks you to do something that seems inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable. This could be something really simple, like the invitation that you agree with nasty gossip about someone else. Maybe you don't agree, but figure that it's probably easier just to go along with the crowd. Maybe saying "yes" seems to be a strategic choice, one that might keep the gossipers' focus away from you.

"Yes" may appear to be the easier answer, but in this case, "no" is the better choice. If you participate in nasty gossiping, everyone gets hurt -- and not just the object of the group's attention. There are no bystanders with gossiping -- there are active and passive participants just as there are active and passive protesters. If you say, "yes" -- actively or passively -- you become complicit and gain some responsibility for the ugliness. That easy "yes" can take on a huge weight of moral responsibility.

Beyond hurting the object of the gossip, and yourself (if you participate), your "yes" is bad for those instigating the nastiness. Maybe they don't know any better, or maybe they have bad habits, but at a very basic level of humanity, they certainly need someone to say "no." Even if they don't see it like this, I'm certain that society (and I mean "we") need someone to take stand in favor of civility and decency. And that someone might be you, or me, or the person next door.

Here's another example, you're in a meeting and someone asks you to undertake a task that is way beyond the scope of your work and related compensation. The request is totally inappropriate, but issued by someone high up in the pecking order. As far as you know, no one ever says "no" to this person (who has no boundaries), and undercurrent of resentment destabilizes the work environment and output. That's bad for business, exploitative for you (and your colleagues), and none too good for the "top dog."

What to do? Sure, you've got to make an analysis of the situation -- and sometimes we all decide to say, "yes," because the cost of saying "no" is too high. But keep in mind that there's value to establishing boundaries, creating a climate of decency, and interrupting unhealthy patterns -- for you, your co-workers and the person who never hears "no." I firmly believe that communities are healthiest when people hold each other accountable. If you can't say "no" at work, or at home, then it's time to re-evaluate your situation.

Put bluntly, if you don't feel free say "no," you probably aren't safe. Safety includes many different realms, from the emotional to the intellectual, the physical to the spiritual. The ability to give active consent -- to say, "yes," because you truly agree -- is the fundamental basis of safety. If "no" is not an option, chances are good that your "yes" isn't freely given.

For "yes" to mean yes, "no" has to mean no. To me, what's "nice" isn't a question of "yes" or "no." Nice is what's honest, skillful and said with integrity. I don't agree that "nice" is about making other people feel comfortable and good, at any price and no matter the circumstances. Taken to extremes, that misunderstanding of nice can lead to manipulation, unchecked power, and varying degrees of danger.

"Nice" is what happens when people interact with civility and in a context of safety. It's the outcome of clear thinking and direct communication. It comes with healthy boundaries, respect and social and emotional skills. Nice feels good because it's constructive -- and not because it feeds the ego.

So, to me, "no" can be oh-so-nice and a powerful force for good. Used properly, "no" makes "yes" even better. The bottom line is simple: focus your awareness on what's really happening, pay attention to seeing what's most "constructive" -- right here, right now -- and have the courage to respond accordingly. Oh, yeah, and keep in mind that "no" can be a profound expression of kindness, just as compassion isn't necessarily warm and fuzzy.