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Just Say No (Confidently and Politely)

Not less than 10 minutes ago, I came out of a meeting that was about 10 minutes long.

It was supposed to be at least a half hour, but one word really shut down the entire conversation and ended the meeting abruptly.

The discussion was around coming up with some art to promote a very large section of the website, that had several groups listed within it, that each had their own webpage.

Our goal was to create an image that was going to represent 32 different entities, and invite people to not only visit the page that explains these entities further, but to join one that best fits their discipline.

So, here I am with my boss and the graphic designer on the case. I gave two examples of how we could handle the situation. One would be to highlight each entity with a distinguishing graphic of its own and feature a group each week. The other would be something that I saw where it was a graphic image made of words (all 32 entities) that spell out our call to action “Join this group.”

Yes, I grabbed an example used from “Black Lives Matter” where the phrase was spelled out using the names of the victims in a pattern. I knew this example would have been controversial, but it really was the best visual example of what I wanted to do with all 32 names.

My boss really liked it. We thought this would be a slam dunk.

The graphic designer, basically said no. Actually it wasn’t basically. She said no, period. And was unbothered about it.

My boss tried to sell her on the idea, and the graphic designer said no again.

She wasn’t angry or mean.

She just scrunched up her face a bit and offered that we go back to another previous version of the design for us to present to the client. It was direct, it was simple, and it was clear it wasn’t up for debate.

Then she didn’t even ask if there was anything else, or she’d take our ideas into consideration to come up with a happy medium of what we’d discussed.

She thanked us for our time and bounced.

This instantly reminded me of a line from a new instant classic movie “Dope” where the character Diggy says, “I’m George Bush. I don’t give a fuck what the vote says.”

I was really shocked and amused and confused at what I just witnessed. Did I think her reaction was professional in a collaborative setting?

My boss softly said, “Well, I liked that idea. But she’s the artist.”

It’s a rare moment when I see especially other women, especially women of color (the graphic designer was Asian) just assert themselves and it wasn’t in a confrontational way, but just firmly say no, case closed.

She did it so smooth, in the moment, I couldn’t be pissed.

I feel kind of strange about it.
While I applaud her for a level of unbotherdness I’d never witnessed on the job by a non-white male (she’s only about a month or so in), I do feel as if as a new person, she missed an opportunity to be more collaborative, or even take the ideas given to her and to elevate them.

The reason my boss and I didn’t react in a pissy way, is because one, we were shocked. Two, we didn’t have the time. She said she’d send back the original she was working on and give the client that first. That was her proposal. That would be her action item. That would be her contribution. She was firm, and still pleasant. That’s why I kind of admire her swag, even though I still think she was being a bit rigid. But it made me ask myself why was I so quick to feel like she wasn’t being a team player?

Because I’m a hater. And I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what she did. I would have defaulted to trying to please everyone despite my schedule, or other projects. We’ve romanticized being a team player to the point of emotional paralysis and to the point where true team players get manipulated.

The other flipside to this is, if you are someone who is good at what you do, you know what works and what doesn’t. She also has other projects to juggle, and must prioritize her time. Her quick assessment of what was presented before her led her to a simple answer to our suggestions. No. And as non graphic designers, they were totally suggestions. We are not her supervisor. So was our expectation that she at least put some of these ideas to paper unreasonable? Were we being poor collaborators?

This chick really had me scratching my head.

So I decided to put myself in her shoes. As a professional graphic designer, what we were offering up may have seemed way below her talents and appeared uninspired and trite, but once again, I would have taken that opportunity to elevate what my colleagues offered up which is usually what our lead graphic designer does.

I’ve often said I don’t like my time being wasted. And I’ve complained about non-writers telling me how to write.

This situation revealed to me something very interesting about myself.

Usually, when I say no to something, I have to think of 50 million ways to justify it or explain it to someone. Like, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking of ways to make my no go down a lot smoother, and that I tried my best to accommodate you first before making such a tough decision.

This new graphic designer did not go through such a mental exercise.

Was it appropriate to do so? I’ll let you chew on that, but it did reinforce the concept that’s especially lost on a lot of women that no is an answer, and it’s a full sentence. By itself. No further explanations needed.

I’ll have to try it on for size and see how it works to say the word no, without hesitation, explanation or sugar on top to make it go down sweeter for the listener. In other words, I take an inordinate amount of time being worried about someone’s reaction to me telling them no, that I automatically prepare for pushback.

This was a truly teachable moment for me.

Firmly and politely saying no with no qualms and no excuses, could appear arrogant and may make you seem difficult to work with. But sometimes a well-placed, confident no, can express the value of your time and your level of skill.

I’ll have to learn how to get comfortable with the word no, just as comfortable as I am with saying my own name. No isn’t offensive. No is a choice. No is a person exercising their autonomy. This is why we have difficulty hearing it, this is why we go off on children who say it to us with confidence.

While I believe children do need to be respectful of parents, when kids say no, our inclination is to react to it as an act of defiance and disrespect instead of a child acting as a human being who has likes, dislikes and is expressing discomfort or disagreement with a situation.

We are subconsciously telling our kids that there’s always a negative consequence to telling someone no.But as a woman, and as a person of color, we struggle with asserting our autonomy because when we do, when we are absolutely justified, there is pushback.

Any sign of our defiance can cost us jobs, a professional reputation, and even our lives.

That’s just the reality.

When we are in a store, we don’t have time to analyze it, or when it’s time to go to school or go to bed, those are the nonnegotiables. Children better pretend the word “no” doesn’t exist when it comes to such matters. People of color have to teach our kids to get along and be excessively compliant to authority figures as a matter of safety.

We make jokes and remind them that children don’t pay bills in this house, which is true.But underneath it all, we’re giving them a lesson about power and where they fit in all of that. It kind of disturbs me.

But children are still small people who grow into adults who want to either have their way all the time or be chronic people-pleasers with strained sanity, hanging for dear life to the one last nerve we’ve got left. Where is the healthy middle?

But how do we raise our kids to say no at the right time, so that when they are adults they are confident decision-makers while being good people to work with? How do they stand up for their rights as tax-paying citizens without the system turning on them? How do we teach them the powerful “nos” that help them exit unhealthy relationships and uncomfortable situations?

How do we retrain ourselves as adults to be confident enough to say no when it makes sense and to know when to sacrifice for the good of others?

So what do you think? While people do have a right to say no, and in a lot of cases we don’t say no enough, should we be more willing to compromise especially at work? Or have we been groomed as a society to accommodate first, then say no?

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