No Apologies

The default, normal state of your existence is that you do nothing. Everything you do is an exception – and exceptional. By default, you aren’t flying to the moon and back every day, so if you actually did that it would be really amazing. The corollary is that it makes no sense to apologize for not doing that since not doing that is the normal state of affairs.

And yet, we do that all the time. We build enormous amounts of guilt around not doing things, to the point where we feel we have to offer endless explanations for inaction. We send out “no apologies” – that is, apologies for saying “no” – as if we were doing something wrong by doing nothing at all.

Here is the truth, as difficult as it may be to hear: you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your “no.” You certainly don’t owe anyone an apology. We live in a finite world. Even if you have infinite love in our hearts, the world does not provide us with infinite opportunities to express that love. Our minutes, our dollars, our attention spans, the very breaths of our lives are all limited, and that isn’t your fault.

I can hear your protest. “But Johnny, this isn’t the same as building boundaries in business. These are my friends and family, my loved ones. I have to do what they ask, because that’s how it works. How can I say no when these are people I care about?”

First off, I totally get you. This is a hard challenge, with a lot of emotional weight. How can we build and strengthen relationships when I’m pushing them away?

You aren’t.

That’s not what a “no” is. A “no” is a building block, part of what shapes the pathway of the “yes.” The strongest rivers flow in specific spots, while water that spreads out everywhere spreads shallow and weak. The “no” is part of the channel, which helps create the space for a deep and meaningful “yes.”

If you want to be able to give a strong and healthy no that actually builds rapport instead of eroding your own self-worth, try this:

  1. Do not apologize. Strike the language of “sorry” from your vocabulary. You have nothing to apologize for, and carrying guilt in your heart turns into resentment, which makes you want to push the other person away. It also plants the seed in the other person that you have done something wrong, even if they didn’t think that to begin with! Far from making your relationships stronger, needless apologies make them weaker.
  2. Offer no explanations. It’s hard, but we immediately default to giving excuses – even if they’re true, we feel like we owe this expansive description of our circumstances in order to justify the no. But that’s not only untrue, but it’s basically inviting the other person to try to “solve” this for you as if you were giving them a puzzle with your “yes” locked inside.
  3. Instead, if you truly care about this person and you want to build rapport, offer an alternative.

Here’s an example: your cousin, who you love but barely see, invites you to an expensive destination wedding. It’s way outside of your budget and also lands smack in the center of your busiest time with your children’s activities. Here’s an unhealthy way to say no, but it’s what most people would do:

Oh, I’m so so sorry! I feel terrible, I really want to be able to go, but I just can’t. We just had to fix the downstairs bathroom and the kids have a huge run of rehearsals and ugh I’m so sorry.”

You think you’re “making up” for the no (which you don’t have to do!), but you’re not even doing that. You’re saying, “here’s a list of all the things I think are more important than you.” That’s what they hear, anyway. Instead, try this:

That sounds fun! I won’t be able to make it, but when you land back in the country, let’s go out and have a big celebration dinner! My treat, and you can tell me all about it and show me the pictures. Love you cuz, have fun and can’t wait!

See what happened? You celebrated, you encouraged, you invited – all with a “no!” No apologies or explanations were given because none were needed.

You only have so much life to hand out. Don’t waste it on needless apologies; spend it on joy.

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