Such a small word, and yet very often being able to say it is a real challenge. Sometimes, we simply can’t. Even if we know it would be the only advisable thing to say, even if we see danger and risk staring right at us, even if we had planned to say it and felt so confident we would be able to.

In those circumstances, when we feel we have somehow failed our convictions, our beliefs and even our dignity, it is very easy to feel mortified and, frankly, like an utter failure. But the truth is, far from being simple, saying no is actually one of the top soft skills that a person could ever have, and a very complex and wide-ranging skill too, for that matter. So, where does this difficulty come from?

One of the first causes is genetic. Whenever you perceive that “I can’t help it” feeling, it is most probably something you have inherited from your family. Just like you inherited blue eyes and a pollen allergy, you might also have inherited a need to please everyone, for instance.
If you think that training does not have anything to do with it, think about how much training you have had on saying yes. Since a very young age, we were always rewarded for saying yes and punished, reprimanded or even ridiculed for saying no. That goes for parents, teachers, and peers. And since it is our human nature to seek approval and love, our yes-training has molded our nervous system so incisively that we have transformed saying yes into an automatic reaction. Smile and say yes, and you will be fine, loved and accepted. A very powerful message, isn’t it?

Thirdly, no is usually associated with negative and yes with positive. And no-one wants to bring any negativity into their life. But think for a moment: is saying no to a poorly paid job or a crime a negative thing? It isn’t, and we know it very well on a conscious level. However, that positive/negative association makes it so much harder to say no without feeling guilty and uneasy.

However, regardless of the kind of no we cannot say, the root of the problem is the same: fear. Fear of missing opportunities, for instance, especially in business. If we say no to what that very demanding client is requesting, we fear they might not call us ever again. And so we end up bending over backwards, doing the impossible, working overtime, and guess what? That client will never call us again anyway. Because we let them think we were desperate, and no-one wants to work with someone reeking of despair. Talk about obtaining exactly the opposite of what you wanted!

A less intuitive but still very crippling fear is the fear of not living up to our self-image. If you think of yourself as a very active and dedicated professional, you will never allow yourself to say no. Because saying: “Sorry guys, I can’t stay at the office until 10pm tonight” means that tomorrow morning you will wake up without that all-defining certainty of being what you always thought you were, that is the always-reliable, energetic and efficient colleague. You have a reputation to live up to!
Then there is reciprocation, which is also inculcated at a very early age, when we are told to always do something in return for those who did us a favour or offered something. Too bad this mechanism is so powerful that sales people have cynically turned our inborn obligation to reciprocate into a sales technique. Have you ever bumped into a sales person who gave you something unexpected for free –samples, objects, little gifts – and then found yourself buying something you did not actually need?

For every unsaid no, however, there is a price to pay. The employee who always says yes for fear of retaliation will be very resentful. Therefore beware of your temptation to boss people around. They might say yes on the surface, but their resentment will intoxicate the workplace and damage your company. There is nothing more poisonous than an unwilling yes. The mother who always says yes, or the nurse who always forces herself to be kind 24/7 and never says no – no being a day off, going home a bit earlier – will end up taking it out on their kids or their poor patients, with disastrous consequences. Isn’t the inability to say no what burnout syndrome is all about, after all?

For a company, saying yes to everything that each customer might demand brings about lack of organization, lack of consistency and, ultimately, dissatisfied customers. So what started out as a tool for attracting customers – making concessions, giving unnecessary discounts, accepting unfair compromises – ends up being the very reason why customers leave you.

Interestingly enough, sometimes we cannot say no because we do not have the right language for it. Yes, it is also a matter of syntax and vocabulary. Only a couple of weeks ago, I was on the phone trying to book a table for 7 o’clock on a Saturday night. The waitress said: “Thank you very much for calling, we will be happy to accommodate you at 8:30 and let me remind you that margaritas are free after 9pm. You don’t want to miss it!”. I was intrigued by her very charming way of, basically, saying no without ever uttering the word no, which has the ugly power to make you feel rejected. I couldn’t go at 7, but she highlighted the fact that I still could go. And get free margaritas as well!

So, is there a way out of the inability to say no syndrome? Yes, there is. One of the most effective tools for neutralizing fear is lateral thinking. If you are afraid that by saying no you are going to lose that client, start thinking: “What if losing this client was the best thing that could ever happen to me?”. Life is not a straight line, it is usually very unpredictable and full of surprises. So why not just say that no that you feel so strongly about and see where it takes you?
Secondly, stick to your guns. You do not need to prove you are a good business owner or a good professional every single minute of the day. Stop judging yourself and stop thinking everyone else is constantly judging you. You are good at what you do, let customers work around your schedule for once. If they appreciate your job, they will find a way to do it.

And thirdly, whether you are a working mom, a stay-at-home mom or a businessman, one of the most effective ways of saying no is blocking time for yourself. In a world where we remember to recharge the batteries of all our electronic devices every day, we rarely take the time, or even remember, that we need to recharge our own batteries as well. Go out, take a day off, relax, take a walk.
In the end, there is no way you are going to be good at what you do, or even be healthy for that matter, if you constantly neglect, frustrate, ignore or mortify the only person who can make you move forward in life: yourself. And there is no way you will be able to say yes to others – smile, help, serve, support, be kind, be generous – if your very essence is constantly weighed down by resentment and bitterness caused by too many unwilling yeses.
Because, just like Steve Jobs said: “Focusing is about saying no”.