The Power of No

NOIn her TED Talk “Dare to Disagree,” Margaret Heffernan speaks to the power of “no” and the people who aren’t afraid to tell us that.

I know all about this kind of person. I’m married to one. He’s honest with me and challenges my ideas, even when it’s not what I want to hear. And I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I’ve thought:

Couldn’t you please just agree with me and think that everything I say and do is perfectly … perfect?

But he can’t—and shouldn’t! The ability to recognize that, but more importantly to act on it, is a kind of love, too. As a matter of fact, it may even be a love that’s more beneficial (just as it can be more aggravating). As Margaret states:

When we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.

Brian Sharp over at Made of Metaphors wrote a business management post about this, and although the same sentiment holds true, he’s not afraid to be more harsh:

Having difficult conversations is one of your fundamental responsibilities in living. Difficult conversations are the very essence of love, intimacy, and generosity. And every time you postpone or avoid one out of fear you are wasting your precious life, failing in your responsibilities to others, and acting out of cowardice.

The problem is, according to Margaret, to have such people in our lives, we must resist “the neuro-biological drive to surround ourselves with like-minded people.” Brian further explains it in terms of our human reaction to fear:

The reason we avoid difficult conversations is simply fear… It’s appropriate and good to feel fear if you’re about to do something very dangerous. But we also feel fear in a lot of situations that aren’t actually dangerous … Yes, there are risks in having difficult conversations … It might threaten your or their identity, which can be terrifying… Only having difficult conversations will make you less afraid.


That fear is the little voice in my head that I mentioned above. And standing up to that voice requires a lot of patience, consideration, and love, on both sides of the relationship—both the person speaking the truth and the person hearing it.

Szaba doesn’t know it yet, but as part of this family, this will be required of her as well. Margaret stresses that it’s tantamount we teach “these skills to kids (and adults) at every stage of their development if we want to have thinking organizations and a thinking society.”

And again, with Brian as the bad cop:

You can choose to throw your life away, but you cannot choose to throw someone else’s life away. Her time is not your time to waste.

Yowsa. That’s harsh. But maybe it sounds so harsh because it’s so true.

Steer them in the right direction: openness and honesty.
Steer them in the right direction: openness and honesty.

The crux of the matter is this: You can’t just naysay for naysaying’s sake. You need to have a discussion based on honesty, mutual respect, hope, and love. For all his posturing, Brian wisely advises:

Practice connecting with your intention … “I am telling you these observations I have made, even though it is difficult for me, because I care about you and believe they may help you learn and grow… ” You should speak your words as an offering. You should feel sadness as you witness pain and joy as you witness resolve. If you don’t, that means: Do more intention practice next time.

And I leave you with this wise reminder from Margaret’s TED Talk (the full version of which is featured in the video below):

“The truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the moral fortitude to use it. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”

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8 thoughts on “The Power of No

  1. It’s often difficult to have conversations about sensitive subjects. Whether you need to tell someone you disagree with her approach or are upset by her behavior, it’s all too easy to put it off in hopes of finding the “perfect time.” Chances are, that time will never come. You’ll be better off if you stop procrastinating and make the conversation happen. Request a time to meet. Use a non-threatening medium, such as email or voicemail, to ask what time would be best to discuss a sensitive matter. You’ll likely still worry before you sit down with the person, but by framing the conversation upfront, you’ll have taken some of the charge out of it.

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