Why Is It Hard for Adults to Say 'NO?'

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

If Mary and Peter Hamm had had Maria first, they might not have had any more kids.

Maria, the second of their 12 children, said no to giving her kindergarten teacher a Christmas present the teacher might actually use, insisting instead on making something resembling gloves out of felt. She fought her mother over taking piano lessons until finally Mary allowed her to take up the guitar. At 14, she objected mightily when Mary told her to stay out of her boyfriend's bedroom.

She was always testing the limits, Mary recalls, and never shy about saying no.

How frustrating the "no" word can be: for the parent trying to corral a wayward child, for an employee fighting for a raise, for a diplomat trying to broker agreement between warring countries.

But consider what can happen when people don't say no. A teenager can't resist the cigarettes her friend offers and ends up hooked. A working mother of three volunteers to chair the PTA board and wonders why she barks all the time at her husband. A financial officer agrees to shift company money illegally, against his better judgment, and ends up in prison.

Related: How Do You Say No When ...

Everyday choices today are so numerous, stress levels so high, corporate and military scandals so well publicized, that the "no" that came so naturally to Maria appears to be garnering public interest as never before. At least that's what a slew of books published over the past couple of years suggest, including "The Book of No," "Pleasing People: How Not to Be an 'Approval Junkie' " and, this year, William Ury's "The Power of a Positive No."

The significance of saying no is a recent epiphany for Ury, a social anthropologist by training and a professional negotiator based at Harvard Law School. A quarter-century ago, he co-wrote the popular "Getting to Yes."

What changed?

He did, he said, influenced by his work and his personal life. As a mediator nationally and internationally, he became increasingly concerned about a rise in large-scale conflicts between opponents who could not get past their nonnegotiable items to arrive at what they could work on together. As the father of a baby with serious medical problems, he realized that in order to make positive choices about her health, he would have to oppose new medical procedures that he felt were inappropriate.

"In order to say yes to what's truly important, you first need to say no to other things," he says. "It's the defining challenge of our age."

In the Beginning . . .

The groundwork for saying no and yes is laid in the first year of life, according to Stanley Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School. As parents interact with their infants, responding to the babies' sounds, babies learn that they can make something happen -- their first taste of exerting a will.

The actual word "no" -- as well as "yes" -- starts appearing when a child is about 18 months old, as signaling between parents and children becomes more complex. Greenspan, author of the parenting book "Great Kids," uses this example: Susie brings Mommy to the refrigerator and points to the juice. If Mommy says, "Milk?" Susie shakes her head no. She may take Mommy's hand and move it to the juice -- a sign that she's learning not only how to say no to what she doesn't want but yes to what she does, both key elements of identity development.

In the next few years, as she learns the values of her family, she begins to identify reasons for her emotions. It's not enough that she be able to tell right from wrong, says Greenspan; she needs to care about what is right and wrong. Caring is what distinguishes the moral or ethical no -- which hold individuals and societies together -- from the insufficient, expedient no.

In early to mid-adolescence, reflective thinking sets in, allowing children to go one step further and separate their feelings of the moment from what kind of person they are. Telling another person yes may come from a desire to fit in with the crowd, or from the admirable instinct to be sensitive and civil. Either way, it might not be the right choice.

"So when someone offers a [teenage] kid some drugs," Greenspan explains, "he or she can say, 'I'm tempted, but that is not the person I am. It's too risky for me even though I may alienate someone at that moment.' "

Most parents will say they want children who stand up for themselves. The problem comes when that means standing up to Mom and Dad, Ury explains. If kids are mostly rewarded for compliance by parents, teachers or both, when they grow up and have to say the less familiar no, it "can come across as an attack. Then they feel guilty and so the next time avoid the situation altogether."

Learning to say no later in life can be difficult, as Gene Buck, a policy specialist with the Congressional Research Service, knows. Buck grew up hearing that good kids do what they're told to do. He and his family lived on a farm in Upstate New York where "there were lots of ways to get into trouble and have problems. We had very strong discipline." The family moved to the city when he was in junior high, and he chose to do well in school to keep his parents' approval.

Once in college, he continued to seek endorsement, this time from his classmates. "I was involved in everything, trying to get that social acceptance," he recalls. "I joined a fraternity, rushed into an early marriage." Even today, as a husband and father of three young men, "I find myself bending over backward to say yes, especially when I'm vested in a relationship."

Cristian Becker, a freshman at American University, has a similar struggle. He'll give other students rides in his car virtually every time they ask, even at the expense of homework or picking up his sister from her job. He'll be dead tired on a weekend but hop on a train to New York if his friends urge him to.

He says he learned to go along with others' demands as a child growing up in Chile, running errands for his mother. If he started to resist, she'd say, "Boy, don't you say no," and that was that.

Some people handle multiple requests easily. Sara Sullivan, an events manager who lives in Reston, may be one of those. When Sullivan's kids were growing up, she was sometimes gone four out of five weeknights volunteering for schools, Scouts or her community. She admits that her husband and children, now grown, would say she should have turned down people more often. But she enjoyed the work, she says, and felt she was setting an example for her children.

"How are they going to learn to be involved in a community if Mom and Dad aren't?" she asks.

Absolutely, Positively No

By age 15 or 16, young people possess virtually all the cognitive abilities to make good decisions that adults have, according to Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Like adults, they must know three things to use those skills well: what they really want as opposed to, say, what their friends want; what their options are; and what will happen if they choose one option over another.

Much of this is learned by trial and error. Minju Park, also an American University freshman, recalls a time this semester when she made a spreadsheet listing the court cases she needed to know for her politics class. Several classmates asked her to share it with them. She was happy to do this the first time and okay the second time, but by the third time they approached her, she began feeling used.

Should she lie when they asked for it and say she hadn't updated the spreadsheet? She didn't think so. Another option was to tell them no flat-out, but she didn't want to make them mad. She finally came up with what Ury might call a positive no: "I said I would help them if they absolutely needed it, but I thought they should do their own homework. Otherwise they'd never learn."

At any age, according to Fischhoff, people vary on how well they've mastered the skill of refusal. What sets kids apart is that they are more frequently in coercive situations.

"Sometimes their batting averages are no worse than ours. They're just at the plate more," he says.

Saying no continues to be difficult as people move into the workforce or the military, where obedience is expected.

Army drill sergeant Delfin Romani requires recruits to say "Yes, sir!" from the first day of basic training. To persuade them to comply, he groups them in units whose success or failure depends on each soldier.

Recruits learn, for example, to march in formation, and "if a private breaks formation, the whole squad has to wake up a half-hour earlier the next morning," Romani says. Loyalty to their buddies -- and sticking with them in battle when instinct tells them to flee -- is essential to successful campaigns. Romani says it takes two to three weeks before they have developed a love for one another that will carry most through combat.

Similar devotion is frequently expected in corporations, says Erika James, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Managers may soften a directive by prefacing it with something like, "Well, you would agree with . . ." or "Don't you think that . . . ." But company incentives and rewards typically go to employees who say yes to the boss, she says, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Ury, who counts a number of corporations as clients, agrees. "If someone had said no at the right time, maybe Enron would still be around," he says.

That message may be catching on beyond the boardroom. Both Romani and James say the young adults they teach today seem less committed than previous classes to obeying organizations and supervisors.

"It will be interesting to see how that plays out," James says. If another Enron happens, "we might see people saying, 'This just isn't right,' and getting stronger in their convictions. They might let others know what is going on and try to effect change. Or they might leave rather than confront."

To Mary Hamm's credit, she let her stubborn daughter Maria know growing up that it was okay to say no to her parents' wishes, even when they overruled her and insisted she say yes. With the advantage of hindsight, and having raised 11 other children, Mary now appreciates Maria's willfulness. It enabled Maria to set goals, the mother says, and discard anything that got in the way of achieving them.

Now 29 and a second-year medical resident at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Maria Hamm will have the final say. She says that over time, she also learned when she absolutely had to say yes.

Such as?

"There's not a whole lot of room for argument in medical school," she says. ¿


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