How a presentation of life with those who say no causes pause for thought
“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
Tony Blair, Mail on Sunday, 2 October 1994
Three doors down was an august stone building and Oldman was propelled by the inclement weather through the revolving door. Inside, a cool hall, two ordinary storeys high, a classical boxed ceiling held aloft by sturdy marble pillars. Or maybe they were painted, trompe l’oeil fashion. He tapped one: the dull bell of cast iron responded.
Pretence in a bank? Worrying.
People moved sedately across the stone floor, others remaining in an orderly queue waiting their turn. A slight echo to the conversations at the counters meant that you could not distinguish enough sense to properly eavesdrop on the transactions taking place. A stand by the front door held in check the shiny dripping swords of umbrellas, a tray catching the drips. Not an ATM to be seen anywhere.
He was ushered into a side room, all wood panelling and leatherette seats. The chair on this side of a large desk was indicated; he sat. A hush fell over the waiting space. Apparently, he had asked to see the Manager.
He was expecting some Fat Cat in a black waistcoat with pinstriped trews and a worn white shirt to appear, but no. A thin angular woman came in, tall, rather buttoned up in her dark suit, the frilled white blouse peeking out from the bottom just a touch of fantasy. Not quite severe after all, more brisk.
– Mr Trott has an emergency to see to I am afraid. Felicity Goodenough, Assistant Branch Manager.
She shot out an outstretched hand that his training made him grasp. She sat down in the swivel chair opposite him. It had arms, his did not. He looked around. This was how banks used to be.
– We have looked with care at your Application but I am afraid at this point the Bank is unable to accede to your Request.
The news was delivered straight to the point, in careful Morningside. Somehow he was not surprised.
She did not pause.
– There are times, Mr Oldman, when a Bank has to know when to say No. For a Comfort-seeker such as Mr Trott, faced with the Uncontrollable Inconvenience and the Daily Pain of having to deal with the Impact of our Fellow Humans on his Life, a negative response has become a powerful and regular choice. What easier way to the Comfortable pursuit of one’s way in life than a net refusal to participate with Others?
He looked at her closely. Was she having him on? He imagined their relationship, a slight disdain playing on the line of her mouth, perhaps for her manager’s flight from his responsibilities? Well at least she was honest.
– Of course there are also times when the self-protective human being will say ‘No’ in order to survive a potentially dangerous situation. It is quite normal for adults to instruct their offspring in the avoidance of those elements which can be fatal to the young organism. Mostly this fatality is of a physical kind but very often the capacity to say ‘No’ is focused more on the harm fellow humans may wreak on the vulnerable. Self-harm is also prevalent in this area and to say ‘No’ to alcohol, or ‘No’ to the opposite sex, are frequent exhortations of the modern parent, are they not?
Odd how often in our Culture saying No is presented as a positive response to human interaction, he mused. He was reminded that there had been a case when this was seen as positive however, recalling that Bertold Brecht had once written an opera entitled “He Who Says Yes” 1, about someone playing safe by agreeing with tradition. The playwright had then followed this up with a sequel called “He Who Says No” 2, thereby putting his finger on a political dilemma, where saying No released energy for positive development.
But here, the opposite was being posited. Somehow in the contemporary economy, saying No had become acceptable, but only in order to avoid taking on responsibility. Here was a wilful reversal of fortune.
– A perspicacious mental observation, Mr Oldman. Do you know how big is the industry that supports the Nay-Sayers? In my life as a public servant I have met far more of these than Aye-Sayers. Indeed I would say that whole countries are being run by Public Servants very practised at delivering quite the opposite of the meaning of that phrase, for they are certainly not Servants nor Of the People.
– Have you ever paused to wonder why it is that many in a service capacity invariably start the Interview with some implacable refusal, before allowing only the occasional ‘yes’ to pass their lips? Our most prevalent justification is that it is the Public Administration that has the true care of the Nation in hand, since Governments are transitory and all decisions require careful consideration in the wider scheme of things, n’est-ce pas?
– The rhythms of the Administration run deeper than a single parliamentary term. The implication being that the true reality escapes both Politicians and ordinary Citizens alike and that we all need protecting from the foibles of someone else’s latest Good Idea. Only the trained and alert Public Administrator knows how to do this of course.
She swivelled sideways in the chair, legs tightly crossed and, body twisted, leant forwards.
– Professional Nay-Sayers are very artful at promoting their own Comfort first. The Golden Rule is that a ‘yes’ following a refusal has a far better effect on the client than the other way around. That is why all bank, as indeed other, administrators start off with a refusal.
– This is then supported by a battery of impressively researched techniques, to which you may well be able to recall your own exposure. Meet persistent requests for assistance for example, by simply repeating your position. You cannot ascertain the precise workload of the task that you are being asked to undertake? – she pursed her lips – then better say ‘No’.
– It is important to refuse with Clarity. Do not avoid commitment to the ‘No’ by implying that you might do something and then not deliver it. Keep the ‘No’ short, unless providing a longer justification will reinforce your credibility. Finally, Caution: if you have already decided upon a plan of action, saying ‘yes’ could move you right off-message.
He was following with difficulty.
– In our internal relations, we Administrators have also honed a wide series of practices for dealing with – a pause – Colleagues.
Again that faint ripple of disdain along the lip.
– I have long made a study of Mr Trott’s techniques, some of which are quite advanced I must say. He has discovered that he is able to say ‘No’ more easily to his Superior, for example, if he sets obstacles in the way. He uses somewhat arch responses such as: ‘I am already working on another priority for you, just where does this new task fall in the order of priorities?’ Or the masterful: ‘Oh all right, but I will not be able to do it to my usual high standards, of course’.
– Yet more subtly, should a ‘No’ risk offence, the best – and Mr Trott is One of The Best – will actually seem to be offering to their respondent solutions to their dilemma even as they say No. Ideas such as: ‘How about later?’ or: ‘Have you thought about asking someone else?’.
– Should they be forced into a ‘yes’, they impose conditions, such as asking for a better set of protocols for the next time this request occurs, or only beginning the task after they have established a timetable for implementation, which naturally builds in delay; and then offering only a specific and time-limited slot.
She looked at him balefully.
– Some stoop to blackmail. You know the line: ‘Now you owe me one’.
He felt that she was here not intending to mount an attack on the administrations of the world, but using the extremes they present as a useful metaphor of the damage that more day-to-day Comfort-seekers can inflict on their fellow human beings. At the individual level, outside of her particular environment, encouraging people to say ‘no’ was an effective way to curtail anyone’s capacity for action 3. This was often characterised, shockingly, as having a decidedly positive effect on your life.
It was Oldman’s view that to encourage people to refuse to collaborate was socially pernicious, and often only achieved by reinforcing personal inadequacy. One would thus be encouraged to say ‘No’ all because one might not actually be able to deliver on a ‘yes’ and thereby suffer guilt.
She picked up the train of his thought.
– Doubly inadequate there then! tapping her nose. Rather clever don’t you think? Such people even go so far as to claim that there exists a human right to say ‘No’. This is of course immediately devalued by the subtext of their argument, which is that one will be taken for granted and lose people’s respect if one is an Easy Touch.
– We can even deal with the Aye-Sayers in our midst. If you are the kind of person who has a tendency to say ‘yes’ to lots of things, bear in mind that one could infer that you are competent in none! Far better to excel at a few things than be just average at many, don’t you think? Or perhaps you are the kind of person who is unable to say ‘no’ because you are trapped in the desire to please…?
She left the question hanging in the air.
What cynicism, he felt. So what price Comfort? Was not the morality of this sickening and bankrupt?
– No, more of an inconvenience I find, she interjected.
A sigh. Her gaze wandered to the high window and the delivery slackened.
– Horns in, you lie in your lair concocting ever more fantastic schemes, none of which can see the light of day without that necessary engagement with Other People. The more time goes on, the more one loses the ability to confront the Other don’t you think? The less therefore you learn, and the more the practical realisation of your dreams and aspirations dries up.
He looked at her. An angular black sheep in glasses with fiercely intelligent eyes. Edinburgh lost in Brighton. Somehow she had made him privy to her lack of fulfilment and he felt immense regret on her behalf.
He looked at his watch but the wrist was bare. He had better be getting on, for there was clearly nowhere for him to go in here. He proffered his hand and she took it. He gripped it warmly and looked her in the eyes.
– Goodbye Miss Goodenough, and thank you so much for your time.
He really meant it. She dropped her gaze and almost seemed to curtsy.
– Good luck and God speed, she said intensely, holding his hand in both of hers.
They strode off, each in their respective directions.
1 First performed in Berlin by students on 23 June 1930. In Der Jasager the boy conforms to custom.
2 Never made into an opera. In Der Neinsager the boy refuses to conform to custom.
3 See Tip 6 on the Get More Done website which is all about How To Say No: http://www.getmoredone.com/tips6.html