The Power Of Just Saying “No”

I know that for a lot of people, the big moment of last night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas was Bernie Sanders sticking his neck out for Hillary Clinton and saying, “Enough with your damn e-mails!” And, hear, here! I loved it. But the true gold for me came shortly after, when Clinton was asked if she wanted to respond to objections about the e-mail scandal and this happened:


 “No.” That grin! That decisiveness! That woman is saying, “I call bullshit,” “This really isn’t that important in the grand scheme,” and “It’s cute that Chafee, O’Malley, and Webb are even here” all rolled up into two glorious little letters. Just “no.”

“No” is a great thing that some people master early and some people wind up never learning at all. “No” is the way we say, “Whatever it is you’re asking of me, it’s not as important as my own priorities.” “No” is the tool we use to make sure our time and attention are being directed toward things that we believe are actually worthy of our time and attention.

People receive “no” poorly on a neurological level: When someone is told “no,” they get an “outsize surge” of activity in their cerebral cortex, according to studies performed at the University of Chicago. Our brains react much, much more strongly to negative information than to positive information. This is probably why some people don’t like saying “no” – because they understand that it hurts them, and they don’t want to hurt others. And it’s definitely why some people get butthurt and defensive if ever, in any way, they’re told “no.”

But you can’t say yes to everyone, and you can’t grant your time and attention to every request, and I assume that is particularly so in politics. The things we say “no” to define our identity probably even more than the things we say “yes” to. Dr. Judith Sills puts it like this:

“Pleasers are so relationship-oriented that they will automatically say what someone else wants to hear, agree with someone else’s ideas, or bow to another’s agenda without hesitation. A pleaser is frequently socially perceived as ‘nice,’ is usually well liked, and often feels taken advantage of, underappreciated, and uncertain in her decision making. It’s not an even trade-off; when you cannot say No to others, you disappear.”

Hils kept saying last night that she has always acted by her principles and her values, regardless of perceived flip-floppage. I doubt that she has never slipped on her principles, because she’s human. But you don’t get to be the first student commencement speaker at your college, the first woman lawyer at your firm, the first woman chair of the Legal Services Corporation, one of the National Law Journal’s most influential lawyers in America, one of the most politically active First Ladies in the country’s history, the first female senator from New York, and the Secretary of State by not being clear on your priorities and your principles, by not asserting yourself, and by not demanding what you need and refusing what you don’t.

And frankly, in comparison to some of the things she’s had to say “no” to in the past, I’m sure that saying “no” to continued pressure about the e-mail scandal, which does seem designed to distract the viewing public from Clinton’s more substantive policy positions, is pretty small beans. Even if you don’t support her, you have to respect her. Preach, Hil.

[Psychology Today]

[Image via Getty]

Send me a line at [email protected].