The Power of “No”

The Power of “No”

When we talk about our most valuable friends, we usually begin by listing those who are kind and caring, there when we need them, and supportive of our choices. While these qualities are certainly important, there is one other type of support from trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors that is surprising and absolutely essential: rejection.

Now, at first glance, embracing rejection may sound exceptionally strange. “Isn’t rejection something we usually try to avoid?” Indeed, we have all at some point in the past been bitten by harsh words from people who were unhappy with us. This is certainly not the type of rejection I’m talking about. Instead, in the context of our closest relationships, supportive rejection is that neutral or kind voice sharing with us concerns about the choices we are making, how we are behaving, and how we are treating ourselves and others. Since we are all (present company included) capable of deceiving ourselves, long-term success rests heavily on having trusted others in our lives who are willing to point out when they think we are going off-course.

There are three types of rejection that we all may need at various times from the important people in our lives. Before I share these, however, I’d like you to consider the following questions: First, are you a person who actively seeks input and critical feedback from the people closest to you? Second, do you respond graciously and gratefully when others share their suggestions, even when the advice doesn’t resonate with your current perspective? Each of these represent skills that take great courage, a strong self-esteem, and a powerful commitment to your own growth and success.

So what are these forms of rejection that are important forms of support? Let’s call them the Three Rs:

The first R stands for REFUSAL. One of the main reasons we are successful is that our parents were willing to support us by refusing or rejecting many of our preferences regarding food choices, bedtime, and homework vs. play, etc. They likely incurred our wrath, but they were doing the right thing, trying to provide us with the good health, structure, and discipline we needed to succeed in the world. Such positive refusal in adulthood is often met with dissatisfaction. For example, one of the great frustrations many physicians face is patients who become angry when doctors do not prescribe unnecessary medications, such as antibiotics or pain pills that can cause addiction. The doctor may be supporting a client’s health, but the patient may not be able to see this perspective. On the other hand, there are numerous examples where refusal has also been used purposefully and respectfully to achieve exceptional outcomes. In business and creative endeavors, for example, founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos describes an interesting process for creating new products. He invites his staff to tell him “this will never work” and to describe why (refusal), then they build the company’s successful products from there. As he describes it, “By the end, I am never sure I invented anything at all.”

The second R stands for REFRAMING. This occurs when a supportive person chooses to reject our perspective of a behavior or situation, allowing us to look at it from a different angle. For example, if you were to cry in front of a friend, you may immediately begin to wipe away the tears and apologize. The good friend does not reject our grief or the crying itself, but instead rejects our apology with a comment such as, “I’m glad you trust me enough to let me see you this way. It only makes me care for you more.” When 3M, one of the most innovative companies in the world, experiences a product failure, they set off a cannon and have a party! They reject the idea that the product was a flop and, instead, reframe the message to assure their creative workforce that every failure brings them closer to success. A most poignant example of supportive reframing comes from a personal experience: When I was about eight years old, I was riding in the car with my father, who was not someone I usually confided in. Much to both of our surprise, I started to cry. He asked, “What’s wrong son?” I blurted out, “Dad I think I’m ugly….my ears are so big!” If he’d said that they were not, I doubt it would have helped. However, after a few moments of silence, he confidently said, “Don’t worry son, your head will grow.” Perfect logic to an eight-year old boy, and a wonderful example of the power of reframing.

The third R stands for REFERRAL. This type of support occurs when we take a problem to a friend or colleague and they, in turn, gently guide us to the person or resource they feel would be more appropriate or helpful. Essentially, they reject themselves as the source of support and wisely steer us to someone or someplace where we might receive better help.

In the end, our most valuable life friends and partners are not only those who are most attentive, caring, and supportive of our choices, but also the ones willing to reject us – to refuse, reframe, and refer as needed when challenges arise. A friend who can deliver one of more of these R’s is a rare and precious find, and we cannot get very far in life without them.

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