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Saying “No” at Work to Devils and Ordinary Men

First, I gotta be honest with y’all. I am by no means an expert at saying “No.”  It almost pains me to form the two letters that go into the word.   So how about if we have a cup of iced coffee and chat about it? Yes, I am drinking iced coffee right now.  It’s hot as hell where I live.

One time, I was hanging out with a friend, and when I complained how stuck I felt in a toxic relationship and couldn’t say no, she glared at me and snapped, “No is a sentence.”

I sighed and messed around with the button on my shirt. “One word sentence?”

“One word. No. Nothing else. No explanations, qualifiers, apologies or chances for the ‘no’ to change to a ‘yes.'”

I shifted around and fidgeted. “Just ‘no?’”

She winked at me. “Yes.”

It still isn’t easy for me to begin and end a sentence with “No,” unless I am talking to one of my children.  By training, I avoid unpleasant situations, and if I don’t respect someone or fear they are abusive, I won’t keep saying “No.” I will say or write it once and then walk away.

This morning, a few of my friends were talking about how hard it is to say “No.”   One woman mentioned that the last time she said “No” at work, it backfired.  She lost her job.

This got me thinking: is it impossible to say “No” at work?  To answer this question, I thought back to my legal career.  Specifically, I recalled a few times I did or did not say “No” and how it worked out for me.  The results were mixed, but I don’t regret any of the times I said “No.”

The first time I should have said “No” was when I was a first-year associate at a dimly lit, dingy, mid-sized rat house of a litigation boutique.  I was ashamed of this job, for more reasons than the crappy paycheck.  In one of my first days on the job, this redheaded beast of a partner insulted me in a way that epitomizes “sexual harassment,” and I froze like a deer in the headlights.  I simply wasn’t prepared to draw any protective boundaries that hot summer afternoon.  I smiled an uncomfortable smile and walked back to my desk, insecure and unsure of myself.

Several months later, the Senior Partner called me into his office and asked me to sit in on a deposition.  Midway through it, I wanted to run out of the room and vomit, because I realized we were defending a drunk driver who admitted responsibility for injuring the plaintiff.  I made it through the deposition without losing my breakfast, and an hour later, I sat in the Senior Partner’s office.  He said to me, “I want you to work up this case.  It will be good experience for you.”

I stared at him with indignation, shock and disgust, and I walked back to my office and wrote my resignation letter.  In that letter, I told the Senior Partner about the sexual harassment.  And I told him I didn’t go to law school to defend drunk drivers.  As I drove out of the parking lot that afternoon, I glimpsed a welcome sight: the senior partner was chewing out the redheaded, sexually inappropriate douchebag.  It was his last day at the firm too.

Fast forward a few years.  Now I am a fifth-year associate earning a six-figure salary.  I have a lot to lose.  The partner I report to is a skinny, well-connected, hard-working, junior partner who has gotten ahead by getting along, and he asks me to do something unscrupulous with a document we’ve been ordered to produce.   As an attorney, I am bound by a Code of Ethics, and if I violate that Code, I could be disbarred, and my law firm could be sanctioned.

When I get home from work that night, I agonize over the conundrum I’m in.  If I refuse to withhold the document, I could get blackballed at the firm, and no longer trusted with assignments.  I could be fired.  But if I violate my principles, I could lose my license to practice law.  Worse, I could lose my self-respect.

When I woke up the next morning, I spent a few hours drafting a tactful memorandum in which I outlined the risks of withholding the document and sent it to the partner who had suggested I lose the document.  I didn’t refuse to destroy it.  I didn’t scream, “No,” but in a very careful way, I showed him why it wasn’t prudent to withhold it.  After all, I explained, it is not prudent to run afoul of the state bar’s ethics.  And as the supervising attorney, he would be the one who would get crucified.

We produced the document.  But from then on, the deal partner stopped assigning me work, not in an obvious way.  Bit by bit, case by case, less work came my way.   Regrets?  No, none.  It isn’t necessary to scream and make a scene when you draw a boundary.  There are as many ways to say “No” as there are ways to fashion a boundary that protects you from the dangers that intrude on your safety and your peace of mind.

So, dear readers, how hard is it for you to say “No?”  Is it easier or harder to say “No” in a professional setting than it is in social situations?

***Note: It is with a grin that I include Al Pacino pictures from The Devil’s Advocate, but my experience practicing law often reminded me of this fine movie. It’s not that I worked for terrible people, but I often wrestled with my conscience as if I were tempted by demons or the devil to do the wrong thing.

Law, Rules and Writing, by Astrea Baldwin

The lot of a modern writer is not to toil in lonely isolation. The Internet brings writers together via sites like Facebook and Twitter. One of the central networking hubs for hard-working writers exists on WordPress, which represents the most precious of treasures: a community of lovely and talented writers. One of these treasures takes the actual form of Astrea Baldwin, who is today’s guest blogger. 

I fell upon Astrea’s blog and felt a connection to her and to her work as soon as I read a single post.  I kept reading and commenting and our dialogue grew deeper and more personal by the day.  For those of you who know me or who know Astrea, this won’t surprise you.  We are both very open about our respective pasts and about our own internal processes.  Right from the start, I could talk with Astrea about a wide range of topics.  From gardening to families to quirky stories to mental illness, we tend to cover a lot of material in a short amount of time whenever we talk.  And neither one of us likes golf.  The Masters in particular offends both of us.

I adore Astrea and I love the way she writes. Her words flow in a natural progression and she mixes self-deprecating wit with incisive and sage analysis.  Below you will find Astrea’s take on an issue I hope to address in an upcoming blog post of my own.  Please enjoy the following post and remember to follow Astrea’s blog.  Meanwhile, I love it when you leave comments!!!

Without further ado, I introduce today’s guest blogger.

Have you noticed that there are so many bloggers who are survivors of various kinds of abuse, have psychological issues of various flavors, but are also/were also in the legal profession? There’s you, then I have a pretty piece of paper that says I’m qualified to be a paralegal, but I don’t use it. Let’s add one more thing to that list; we’re all writers in our various forms and genres. Fascinating stuff. What’s the connection?

Let me back up or you guys are gonna’ be lost. That’s more or less the bones of thought to a random message I sent El one morning while my brain was going ninety-to-nothing. To explain the “we”, I have a blog, though I don’t update as often as I really should. I’m a writer, and I have the aforementioned pretty paper. And that was the day I fairly irreverently (what a shock, me irreverent?) came out of the closet to her. I think I said, “I’m an unmedicated – save for Xanax – rapid-cycling bi-polar, OCD riddled, near Aspie nut case that had a psycho-bitch for a mother. Still like me?”

Yeah, that was about it. (She still likes me, by the way – I think) So, now you and the entire Internet know, too. I don’t talk about it much because that’s just the way it is and I have embraced it, warts and all. Namaste! But, now that you have the connection, back to the subject!

What drew me to the law? I have a strong, strong belief in the power of words and thereby the law has always intrigued me. With the use of one word or another, or the omission of one word or another, laws can be bent, broken, or stand rock solid. How can you beat that? That’s power right there. Control. More control than I sometimes feel like I have on a good day, wrapped up in a neat little pile. It seemed a safe career choice for me because the law is bound by specific rules. My brain runs a million miles an hour at all times. Slowing it down is pretty hard, but rules and order help. I make tons of lists for that reason.

So, I wondered, because of our conditions, are our chaotic minds predisposed to seek out order and therefore so many of us are drawn to the law? The law should – reiterate should – be the ultimate order. Even someone not familiar with the law should know that while it has definite structure, the law is far from orderly, so what the hell was I thinking?

In the end, I didn’t choose a career in law. Knowing someone would be counting on me to use the words, the law, the rules, I knew to help them was too much pressure for my head to wrap around. What if I was wrong? What if one of the words I said did more harm than good? Words can help, but they can also hurt. Something I was all too familiar with. So, what did I do? I hung my pretty paper on the wall, went back to the boring day job, and went back to writing, where you really can’t be wrong.

There dropped the answer to the writer connection.

I write fiction, Urban Fantasy to be precise, and have done so since 1994. When I sat down last year and decided I was going novel length with my work for the first time, I started out by just vomiting up eighteen years’ worth of stored up words. My inner editor is a killer, so ignoring my beloved rules – the ones I already knew – was hard stuff. Somewhere along the way I started actually reading and studying the rules of writing for the first time.

Wow, and I thought law was hard?

Once the words were down, I immediately began looking for order and applying those rules. No, that paragraph should be moved to a few pages earlier. That reaction is too soon, move it to later. Dingy, you said he had brown hair on page 42, but on page 97 it says his hair is red. Um, I don’t think “reek” is the right word for right there. Gods, your grammar sucks. Fix it.


I was breaking rules left and right – I really dislike the word gaze and think the whole “no disembodied body parts” thing is a stupid rule – and having to go back and fix those things began to flat wreck my nerves. Not to mention, piss me off. So much so that I wondered what the hell I was thinking about writing as a career? I was as baffled about my choice to write on a large scale as I had been about my choice of the law, but I got over it. It’s just too much fun.

They really are similar in the vaguest way, though, don’t you think? The law and writing. Order – Structure – Rules. Some writing rules can be bent, some broken. Some you just can’t get around. So, in writing, like law, are we also trying to escape the chaos and have some measure of order and control? I think more so.

Sure, there are rules, structure, and order in writing, but there is also absolute freedom. It’s your world, your rules. If you want the sky to be red, it’s red. Is the mayor secretly a weretiger? Cool. If you want to burn down an entire city block because the barista at the Starbucks on that corner once gave you a bad latte? Do it in your story. Did something terrible happen in your life? You can rewrite that unhappy ending. If you want to go back and visit a place you love, but can’t in the real world, you certainly can as often as you wish in your writing. You can be, through your writing, anyone you want to be. Shed burdens, draw love close. Smile when you don’t think you can, cry when you didn’t think you could anymore.

Writing is a freedom to be who you are deep inside when the real world sometimes doesn’t understand you. It’s an escape. Into chaos, sometimes, but it’s a chaos created and managed by your own mind. You have created this world and you are master and commander, judge, jury, and executioner. That’s power right there. Control. It’s all you, princess.

Not everyone is going to like what you write, but that’s just the way it is. Two things are certain; someone will like it and you can never be wrong.

Unless your eyes wander across the street. Because that’s just against the rules, dammit.

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