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.