Saying No

I’m not a huge tv watcher, but lately I’ve started watching the show The Good Wife. I’m only five years late to the party. The Good Wife stars Julianna Marguiles as Alicia Florrick, a lawyer returning to the work force after her husband is jailed for political misdeeds. It took me a while to realize it, but one of the reasons I like the show so much is that Alicia, despite being “the good wife” who stood beside her husband as he admitted corruption, is actually a strong female character. One of her best traits?

She says no.

She says no openly, directly, and without apology. She says no quite often. Best of all, when Alicia says no, my reaction as a viewer is never negative toward her. She comes across as a confident person unwilling to put up with certain requests or behaviors, as is reasonable for all of us to do.

As a woman and an organizational psychologist, I try to pay attention to how I present myself in the workplace.  It’s well-known that a pay gap exists between men and women in the United States, but did you also know that women are significantly less likely than men to negotiate a job offer? It’s also known that men and women gravitate toward different communication styles. Carol Gilligan argued that women and men’s ethical development is different, cascading into their views of self and others and their communication habits (see In A Different Voice). Women may be perceived as less assertive than men, and in fact Eagly and Johnson found in a meta-analysis that female managers tend to adopt a democratic (vs. autocratic) style. There is reason to believe women, relative to men, are more likely to say yes because of their passive communication style and orientation toward relationships.

Add into the mix the fact that all people share a fundamental need for relatedness, and you can see why saying no may be hard. We want to be liked, so we agree to do things we hope will make other people happy. We want to avoid the unpleasantness of conflict, so we agree to things we don’t want so that no one gets angry. But in fact, saying no can be a wonderful thing, especially when someone has made a request that oversteps our personal boundaries or deprives us of something we value (such as time or attention we could spend on something else).

Having thought about my happiness as a result of The Happiness Project, I believe that selectively saying no will help improve my happiness. So I will try to pause before I reflexively answer a request. When it’s something I don’t want to say yes to, I’ll think about whether this is a good time to say no instead. And when I do say no, I’ll remember to be direct and unapologetic like Alicia Florrick.