The Power of No.



Words have so much strength. It’s been said that words are the most powerful force available to humanity. They can make us feel so much emotion - love, hate, fear, joy.


One of the most powerful words of them all is also one of the shortest. And for many of us, the hardest to say. It’s the word “no.”


As females, we’ve been conditioned by society to say yes. From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to be agreeable. Consciously or not we learn it’s not nice to tell someone no - you might hurt their feelings. And we often carry this sentiment into adulthood, saying yes to all sorts of things we’d rather not - from hanging out with a friend when we’re ready to go home to taking on an extra assignment that will have us working all night. When we do say no, we feel we have to make an excuse or offer a compromise. “I can’t make it to your party. I really want to come but I’m so behind I’m going to have to work late. Can we get together next weekend?” instead of just “No thanks, I need a night at home.” Don’t get me wrong, there are times when good manners are in order. But learning how to say “no” without apologizing or feeling badly is a skill we could all use.


Since we weren’t taught to say no, many of us struggle in how we use it. Here’s one hint: no is a complete sentence. It doesn’t always require something else. Not every “no” needs to be explained. In fact, when you do, you risk weakening your position, because you give the other person something to argue with you about.


I was reminded of this recently while negotiating an agreement in a personal matter. We’d been going back and forth for weeks. But just as I thought we were getting somewhere, I got a request for something we’d never discussed. Something that was totally unacceptable. My first reaction was to not respond at all (silence, by the way, also has great power). I got a second email, this time demanding that I agree. I wanted to say something like “Hell no! Are you joking? There’s no way I can do that because….”and on and on. But while that would have made me temporarily feel good, it probably would have ended our negotiations, which I didn’t want to do. Instead, I sent back a one-word response: “No.” Two hours later, we’d reached an agreement, and that unacceptable term was never brought up again.


What does this have to do with divorce? Well, if you’re not already comfortable saying no, it’s going to be even harder saying it in a stress-filled situation. Learning how to say no isn’t just about saying no to the event you’d rather skip or denying an overly-demanding boss. It’s about learning how to use our voice forcefully (yet respectfully, as long as that’s warranted). So that others understand they need to take our requests, or refusals, seriously.

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Here are some examples of a divorce-related situation where a simple “no” might serve you well:


  • You’ve been sitting in mediation for hours trying to reach an agreement, and have been clear what you need, but your spouse’s “final” alimony offer is something you absolutely can’t live with. Your response is a calm and unqualified: “No.”


  • Your ex asks you to do something, and you’ve already given a perfectly reasonable explanation for your decision. When you’re asked again, you just say “no.”


  • Your spouse’s attorney is taking your deposition. You’re nervous and uncomfortable. The lawyer asks you whether you think it’s best for your kids that you have 50/50 custody. Your answer is a simple “no.”

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I’m not suggesting you should never explain your reasoning. In the deposition example above, if you’re asked to explain, you should. And when your ex asks if he can swap weekends with you next weekend, it might be appropriate to follow your “no” with “we’ve already made plans to go hiking all day Saturday.” But if it’s the 3rd weekend in a row that he’s asked, a simple “no” can suffice.


Make sure to use your no’s in the right way. I’m not talking about an excuse to be unreasonable. And if you say no all the time then change your mind, it’s like telling your toddler she can’t have another cookie but giving it to her when she keeps whining. But if you use the word no only when you’ve carefully considered the request, and you’re not going back, it can be so powerful.


Derivations of no can also work. Some of my favorites are “not now,”not today,” and “not unless…” (followed by whatever it is you would need in order to say yes). Instead of a hard no, these let the other person know you’re not ok with their request at the moment or that it’s going to take something else to get you to agree. Just know that these versions leave the door open for future discussion, and make sure that’s something you want to do.


If you found this helpful, we’ve got 9 more power words for you plus so much more in Divorce Scripts. You’ll find the tools you need to get through over 40 common divorce communications - from talking to your ex, your friends, employers, kids’ teachers, on social media, and more.