in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: August 1, 2023

Podcast #915: Finally Learn to Say No

When someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do, we often say yes even though we want to say no, because we think that saying no will feel terrible. But my guest, Dr. Vanessa Patrick, says the opposite is true: we actually feel great when we say no.

So why do we have such a hard time doing so?

Today on the show, Vanessa, who’s the author of The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No That Puts You in Charge of Your Life, answers that question and more. She shares how to categorize the asks you get into quadrants to determine whether you should say yes or no to them. And she explains how to give an “empowered refusal” — a no that’s phrased in a way that makes it less likely to create offense or pushback — so you can start saying no to the things that don’t matter, and spend more of your time on the things that do.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do, we often say yes, even though we want to say no, because we think saying no will feel terrible, but my guest, Dr. Vanessa Patrick says the opposite is true. We actually feel great when we say no. So, why do we have such a hard time doing so? Today on the show, Vanessa, who is the author of “The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No” that puts you in charge of your life, answers that question and more. She shares how to categorize the ask you get into quadrants to determine whether you should say yes or no to them. And she explains how to give an empowered refusal, a no that’s phrased in a way that makes it less likely to create offense or pushback. So, you can start saying no to the things that don’t matter and spend more of your time on the things that do. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Vanessa Patrick, welcome to the show.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

Brett McKay:So, you are a professor of marketing, and you’ve done a lot of research on why people have a hard time saying no, even when they really want to say no. I think a lot of people have this problem. I know I have this problem. And today we’re going to talk about what you can do about it and how you can get better at saying no. But first let’s talk about why it is that saying no can be so hard. You say it has a lot to do with our desire to belong to groups. What’s going on there?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: So the two letter word, no, it’s a tiny little word, but it causes a lot of us a lot of angst and is ridden with conflict and anxiety. And so the reason that I’m really interested in is why is that the case? And so in my research, I’ve identified three main reasons for why we find saying no so difficult. And it boils down to people and how people think about us and how we relate to other people. And so those three reasons are one, a concern for our relationship with others. So, we want to have good relationships with others. We want people to like us. We want to belong to social groups and we want friends. And so we believe that when we say no, we are likely to damage that relationship. So, we often say yes when we want to say no. The second driver of saying yes when we want to say no is our concern for our own reputation, the desire to look good in the eyes of others. And that essentially is this motivation for us to look competent and capable and able to do anything, regardless of how difficult the ask is. And we are very motivated to impress others in this way. And so we sometimes say yes because we want to impress people and take on stuff that is difficult.

The other reason, and this is a very, very important reason, and that is that we have never really learned how to say no effectively. I mean, if you think about when we are born, we are born pretty selfish and focused on what we want. And if you think about a toddler, they are very good at saying no, I don’t want this, and I don’t want that. But we socialize that out of our children, right? We tell them that they need to be cooperative and kind and giving and sacrifice their own wants and allow other people to have their way. And so we kind of socialize that out of people. So, people have never really learned how to say no effectively, which is where my book comes in.

Brett McKay: All right. So, speaking of that idea that our desire to belong to groups and nurture relationships, you call this, you say no is the harmony buster, right? Because like, as soon as you say no, you think, oh my gosh, this person’s not going to like me anymore and that hurts.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, when people ask us a favor or ask us to go somewhere or invite us someplace, they are expecting us to say yes. They wouldn’t have asked us if they didn’t expect that yes. And so saying no goes against that expectation. And that is something we struggle with a lot and is filled with conflict. Because we have to actually go against the expectations of others. So, I describe no as a socially dis-preferred response because no one wants us to say no to them.

Brett McKay: Right. I think we’ve all experienced that when a family member or a friend made a like a pretty heavy ask, right? You’re like, oh, geez, that’s gonna really be inconvenient. And I just don’t have the bandwidth. But you still say yes, because you care about the relationship. And you feel like if you do say no, it’ll hurt the relationship.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Right, right. And in the book, I help people categorize those different asks, and also learn to say no to the things that don’t matter. And even if it’s a big ask from someone important, if it’s really a hell no for you, then it should not be something that you engage in.

Brett McKay: Well, this idea that our desire for reputation or status also contributes to us saying yes to things to which we want to say no, I thought that was interesting. You talk about this, you see this a lot when we say yes to acquaintances. I think most of us have no problem saying no to a complete stranger.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Or, you know, sometimes saying no to like a close friend or a family member because you know, well, you might have a tight relationship with them. So, you know if you say no, they’re not going to care and they’re not going to think less of you. But acquaintances, that gets hard because you say we can fall into this acquaintance trap. What is the acquaintance trap?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes, so the acquaintance trap is essentially this idea that we have different types of relationships with different sorts of people. And so as you rightly pointed out, to a complete stranger, it’s not that hard to say no because we’re never going to see them again. And you can say no without any fear of your reputation or relationship being damaged because it’s a non issue. And with people who are very close to us, we are very secure in those relationships. And we are not worried if we say no to our mom that our mom will stop talking to us. Our mom is gonna be our mom and she will get over it and talk to us eventually. And so essentially, it’s the whole bunch of other people who form the majority of the relationships in our lives, who are our acquaintances to whom we have the most difficult time saying no. Because we have good relationships with them, but not great relationships with them. They are weak social ties. And we do care about how we look in their eyes. And so that combination of reputation and relationships with acquaintances put us in a situation very often, where it’s really hard to say no to them.

Brett McKay: Okay, so our drive for wanting to belong or keep relationships strong, or our drive for reputation makes it hard to say no, and we’ll talk about this idea that we don’t know how to say no. We’re gonna dig deep into that. But before we do, you’ve also done research on what happens whenever we say yes to things we wanna say no to and how it makes us feel. What does that research show?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: It’s interesting because most people feel that they are gonna feel really guilty for saying no. And that saying no is going to make them feel bad. And that is actually a forecast that is incorrect. What actually happens in real life, is that it’s when we say yes to the things we don’t wanna do that we feel really bad. We feel resentful, we feel angry, we feel guilty. And when we say no to those things, we feel relieved and happy and freer. And so even though we think that saying no will feel bad and make us feel bad, it’s actually the opposite. It’s saying yes to the things that don’t motivate us, that are not aligned with our purpose, that don’t leverage our unique strengths, those are the things that feel bad.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I imagine that’s a source of a lot of burnout that people might be experiencing.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Oh, absolutely. 100%. When we fill our calendars with busy work and stuff that’s not aligned with our identity, stuff that’s not… Doesn’t make us feel energized and good about doing it, we feel really resentful to the people who are making us do those things, and angry with that. And if we spend more time doing the things that give us joy and are fulfilling and tap into what we are able to uniquely contribute, it’s a completely different experience.

Brett McKay: So saying yes to things you wanna say no to, it makes you feel put upon, disempowered, not an agent, like you’re acted on, like it just, that doesn’t feel good.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think it’s interesting. I know I’ve experienced that where I have this ask given to me and I’m just wrestling with it, “Oh my gosh, I don’t wanna do this.” And then I finally say no and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that wasn’t so bad.” But then when I say yes, just think, “Oh, this is awful,” and I’m just complaining about the entire time. And for some reason I can’t remember that you’ll feel worse saying yes to this thing and instead of saying no.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah, yeah. The fact is that when we say yes to something and we feel really bad, our psychological immune system kicks in, and we immediately wanna start coping with that. And to do that, we often try to search desperately for a silver lining, something that’s good about the fact that you are spending your time doing this thing that you really did not wanna do. And I recommend that we kind of manage that psychological immune system so that we don’t repeat the mistake again. So when we do feel resentful, and when we do feel that sense of, “I’m wasting my time, I really shouldn’t be doing this,” it’s a learning opportunity for us to really recognize that this is something that I really don’t like to do, I should avoid doing it in the future, rather than let that psychological immune system kick in and not learn from that experience.

Brett McKay: Another thing I think, and you talk about this in the book that contributes to us having such a hard time saying no, is that we often go around in the world thinking, “Well, I’m the only one that could do this.”

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes.

Brett McKay: And it reminds me of a quote from Bertrand Russell. He said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Like you’re this indispensable person. But actually when you say no, there’s probably someone else that can do the thing that you said no to.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Oh, absolutely. In fact that’s a very, very vivid thing to remember. That whenever you feel that you’re the only person who can do this, you need to check yourself. Because, I often remind myself that the graveyards are full of indispensable people. The reality is that when someone makes a request of you, most often, they just need that thing done. And while you might be a great candidate to do it, you might not be the only candidate to do it. And the reality is, if when you say no, they’re simply going to go back to their list and go down that list to the next person. That’s what happens most of the time.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the graveyards are full of indispensable people. Reminds me, my great-grandfather, he self-published a short memoir, and at the end of it, he had a poem called “The Indispensable Man.” And Dwight Eisenhower actually used to carry this poem around. And it goes like this, “Sometime when you’re feeling important, sometime when your ego’s in bloom, sometime when you take it for granted, you’re the best qualified in the room. Sometime when you feel that you’re going would leave an un-fillable hole, just follow these simple instructions and see how they humble your soul. Take a bucket and fill it with water. Put your hand in it up to the wrist. Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining is a measure of how much you’ll be missed. You can splash all you wish when you enter, you may stir up the water galore, but stop and you’ll find that in no time, it looks quite the same as before.”

The moral of this Quin example is to do just the best that you can. Be proud of yourself, but remember, there’s no indispensable man. So I think it’s a good reminder when you’re feeling like, “Man, if I don’t say yes to this, then everything’s gonna fall apart,” that no, in most cases, other arrangements will be made and things will just keep moving on without you.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah, I mean it’s really humbling and you know you become able to say no to a lot more things when you have a more realistic view of what you can contribute. Having a clear idea of what you can do and do uniquely is so important because in some domains we might be indispensable and it’s so important to be able to focus our energies on those domains because there we can make a positive difference in the world, where if we scatter our attention and do anything that everyone asks us, then we diffuse the impact that we can have. And so our self-awareness needs to kind of focus on where am I truly indispensable and where am I not?

Brett McKay: All right, well let’s dig into how people can start saying no more often and feel good about it. One thing you recommend is that people avoid calling themselves a people pleaser. And I think a lot of people who have a hard time saying, no, they do that, well, I’m just such a people pleaser. Why do you recommend people not labeling themselves as that?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: You know, in my research I would very often ask people to tell me stories about when they said yes, when they wanted to say no. And they would tell me those stories, but they would also give themselves the excuse or give themselves an out by explaining to me that, “I’m just a people pleaser. I have this terrible people pleasing tendency.” And the idea is that the words that we use are really important. If we call ourselves people pleasers, we are more likely to act like people pleasers because the self-talk, the way we speak to ourselves, the way we describe ourselves does implicate our identity. So we need to be able to talk to ourselves in a way that allows ourselves to act in the way we want to act. So we should not call ourselves or give ourselves a label that puts us in a situation that we don’t wanna be in. So people pleaser is definitely one of those labels because we make greater inroads into our identity when we use words like that and it tells us who we are.

Brett McKay: So part of how to say no is knowing when to say no. And you mentioned earlier about categorizing the ask that you get, and you actually have this really useful quadrant that people can use for deciding when to say yes and when to say no. Can you walk us through these four quadrants?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Right. So this is the framework that I call the decipher, the ask framework. And it’s really about deciphering between the good for me activities versus the not good for me activities. And the framework takes two lenses. The first lens is how costly is taking this on going to be for me? Is it gonna be very, very effortful, time consuming, energy consuming, etcetera? And so that’s one dimension. How costly is it for me, versus how much benefit will the asker get from me doing this? You know, like is this tapping into something that I can uniquely do and really make a positive difference or does it have no real benefit for me doing it at all? And so it’s got these two dimensions that we consider. And so if you think about the different ask, you can think about something like low cost to you ask, pretty easy for you to do, but has a huge benefit for other people.

I call these as pass the salt tasks. So imagine you’re sitting at the dining table and the salt shaker is sitting in front of you and someone says, “Hey Vanessa, can you pass the salt?” And I just lift up the salt shaker and pass it along the table. For me it was super easy to do, not a big deal, but for the other person, presumably, they really needed salt for their meal and it’s gonna transform their meal. So it’s a big deal for them. There are some asks like those which the past the salt asks, which might be useful to think about saying yes to because they are very low cost to you, but they actually make a positive difference in the world. In complete contrast to pass the salt asks are what I call bake your famous lasagna asks, these are asks that are very costly for you.

They are hugely time consuming like baking a lasagna for example. They might be effortful. And so if you’ve been asked by a friend to bake this lasagna for a potluck party where everyone else is bringing party trays or picking up cookies from a store and you are the only person who’s slaving making this tedious dish, maybe those are the kind of asks that you should be thinking about saying no to. And so thinking about the kind of asks that are coming your way are really important. And the reason we need to say no to bake your famous lasagna asks is so we can say yes to hero’s journey asks. So hero’s journey asks are the ones where they might be high effort for you, you might have to give a lot of yourself, but they also make a positive difference in the world. And so we need to think about where… And we talked about this a little bit earlier, right? When we are talking about where you spend your energy, how do you find the things that you can uniquely do that you are indispensable for in that specific domain in the moment?

And so spending our time doing those because those are energizing and motivating and feel good because you know that you are uniquely contributing to the world.

Brett McKay: And then there is that final one, that low cost to you, but low to other people. That’s the email tweet post ask, right?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes. So those are the kind of asks which are low benefit to other people, not very high cost to you, but are they worth doing? So in the book, I talk about a few things. I call them bullshit jobs, because they are probably not worth doing. If you see yourself doing stuff that’s making no difference to the world, however easy it is, you should probably not spend even a minute doing it. And so you can think about discussing with the asker whether those things should even be done or should they be outsourced or just eliminated so that no one has to do those kind of jobs. And so once we identify and become much better at spotting the kind of ask that it is, deciphering the kind of ask that it is, then how we respond to those asks becomes pretty obvious and straightforward.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought this quadrant was really useful. And I’ve been thinking about the ask that I get, and putting it into there. So, the low cost to you, low benefit to others, that’s the email tweet post, automatic no, probably… Maybe it doesn’t have to be done. The low cost to you, high benefit to others. Examples of that you gave in your line of work, since you’re a professor, writing recommendation letters, giving feedback to student presentations, things like that, it’s easy to do, but high benefit to the person. But you also say you gotta be careful saying yes to those things because you have this idea from George Washington, many…

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes, many sickles make a suckle.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah. You don’t wanna say yes too much. Then your entire workflow is just caught up with these little, small pass the salt ask.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes, yes. Precisely.

Brett McKay: And when you were talking about the bake your famous lasagna, that made me think of like the no indispensable man problem, right? It’s like, well, you’re the only one who can make this lasagna. It’s like, well, you could get a lasagna from Costco and it’ll probably taste the same. Just do that. I don’t need to do this.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Oh, yeah. Just go to the grocery store and buy a party tray like everybody else.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you’ll be good. And then I like the hero’s journey. If it’s a high cost to you, but a high benefit to others, then say yes. But then just make sure you’re really measuring the benefits. I think that’s a really useful quadrant.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah, but even in the hero’s journey, one needs to be very careful that it is in fact a hero’s journey. And that the benefit that you’re conferring on others is real. So you need to, even when you take those on, ask the right questions. Don’t just make assumptions about the benefit, or sometimes just asking, why are you asking me? I know you’ve approached me for this, but can you explain why you asked me to do this? And sometimes you’ll hear stuff about why their thought process, how they see you as a person, what you contribute, and then you can get a better understanding of how your talent is viewed in the context of the organization.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So we’ve talked about the groundwork for saying no, don’t refer to yourself as a people pleaser and decide when you should say no by categorizing asks into quadrants. So you should probably say no when it’s low effort for you, but low reward or a lot of effort for you, but low benefit. And you should probably say yes when it’s low effort for you, and high benefit to others, or high effort for you, but high potential reward too. Now let’s get into actually how you give a no. So you and your research team have developed this idea that’s called the Empowered Refusal. And it’s a way of saying no that will allow you to still maintain relationships, and maintain your reputation. So what is an empowered refusal?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: So the empowered refusal is a way of saying no, and it’s a way of saying no that stems from your identity. So you look inwards, and identify what are the values, priorities, preferences and beliefs that you have. And then you communicate your no using who you are, your identity as the basis for saying no. And so because you implicate your identity, you come across with greater conviction and determination, and come across also as much more persuasive to the other person, and do not invite pushback.

Brett McKay: Well, so what’s an example of that, of saying a no that’s tied up with your identity and saying it in a way that doesn’t get pushback?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: So when you speak from your identity, your identity is who you are. It is a stable stance, right? And so words that are empowering and implicate your identity are words like saying, “I don’t, I never, I always, it is my policy too.” As soon as you use words like that, you come across as much more empowered than if you use words like, “I can’t, I shouldn’t, I wish I could, but.” So the language that we use can communicate and tap into identity quite effectively. So in our research studies, we’ve contrasted the phrase, “I can’t,” with the phrase, “I don’t.” And what we show in our work is that when you say, “I can’t,” you come across as disempowered, not in control of the situation. And you communicate that in some other circumstance, you would, but the situation does not allow you to. So you come across as disempowered. As soon as you say I don’t, you come across as having a much more stable stance on the matter. You talk about who you are, you implicate the kind of person that you are. So it’s a small change in the language, but it has a tremendously powerful impact on the listener, as well as on yourself.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve noticed with my own experience, I do that with… With my work, I get asked to like come speak to things or maybe do… Something like that. And my answer is, I just, that’s something I don’t do. And it’s because like I just want to be with my kids, like I wanna be a good dad. That’s a priority for me. And it makes it easy to say no. I don’t have to think about it.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Brett McKay: And the research shows that when you tell someone no, using the I don’t phrase, they’re more willing to accept it. And if you say I can’t, they’ll start trying to negotiate with you. Is that how it works?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Exactly. And so, we basically show that saying no in a way that stems from your identity and using words like I don’t, is so much more empowering and it is so much more effective in persuading the other person that you are not the right person for this job. And it’s important to remember that when you are saying no, because you make it about yourself, your no is about you, and not a rejection of the other person. And that’s a really interesting kind of change in the way we think about it. If we say, I’m giving voice to my values, what I… My priorities, my preferences, my beliefs, this is not about you. This is certainly not personal and it’s not a rejection of you, it changes the dynamic.

Brett McKay: So this is how you’re able to maintain the relationship or even make it stronger.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Exactly. Exactly.

Brett McKay: And it makes it stronger, ’cause now people know something about you that they didn’t know.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: So, related to this idea of tying your no to your identity and saying, “I don’t,” instead of, “I can’t,” your I don’ts grow out of a setting what you call personal policies for yourself. So not doing speaking engagements because my priority is being a dad, is a personal policy. What are some other personal policies that you’ve seen in your own life but also in the research you’ve done?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: So personal policies are simple rules that we set up for ourselves that guide our actions and decisions. They are the ways in which our values and our preferences get manifested in how we operate in the world. So for example, I’m a morning person, and I like my mornings to be dedicated to creative work, writing, research, thinking. And so I have a personal policy where I don’t do meetings in the morning, unless it’s a standing administrative meeting that I have no control over. So those are the kind of things that you have to think about. You have to think about how you would like the world to be, and to what extent can you control and manage the situation so that the world is the way you want it to be. How can you create operating principles?

Brett McKay: Yeah, you gave examples of several creative type people who have created these sorts of policies for themselves. There’s a lot of writers who say, look, the thing I’m good at that allows me to get the most value to the world is writing good books. So they say, “Here’s a list of things I don’t do. I don’t do speaking engagements, I’m not gonna read your manuscript, I’m not going to meet with you.” And it’s not ’cause he doesn’t like you, and he doesn’t wish you well for whatever thing you’re doing, it’s just like, it’s gonna prevent him from doing the writing that he knows will actually have a big impact.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes. And understanding that, where you can impact the world in a positive way, how your talent can be best used, and your time can be best used, these are really important things for us to reflect on, and then make policies around.

Brett McKay: And it sounds like having these personal policies and understanding how to use the I don’t language, this would allow you to create templates for yourself on how to say no when you do get those asks. So instead of having to think about it every single time, you get an email for with a request and you already have the template, ’cause like, all right, here’s my identity. I know what I’m all about. Here’s my personal policy, and then you just, you create a template that can be used in any request.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Exactly. And I think that it can be very efficient to have those sort of decision rules. So I’ll give you an example, Brett. One of the things that happens quite often as a mom is that you get asked to volunteer for various different things at your children’s schools. Now, having a lens with which to decide what you volunteer for and what you don’t volunteer for is efficient and effective. So in my view, I look at it and think, if it has to do with teaching the kids something, sharing my knowledge, I am all in. I will go and read to the kids, I will go and do a presentation, I will do career day, I will do those kind of things. If it doesn’t tap into those things, I’m less likely to do them. So if you ask me if the teacher wants someone to stuff envelopes or go and buy treats for the class, I don’t typically volunteer to do those kind of things, because I’ve got a lens with which I decide what I’m gonna volunteer for, and what I’m not gonna volunteer for.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we’ve talked about how to say no by sorting ask into quadrants, by saying I don’t instead of I can’t and then developing personal policies that these I don’ts grow out of. Something else you talk about in the book is how this preparation can help you manage what you call the spotlight effect. And this is when someone asks you to do something and you just, you feel put on the spot. Like everyone’s eyes are on you, waiting for your answer. And this can either be in your head, like you have a psychological audience in your head, or it might be literally someone asks you to do something and everyone else, there’s a whole bunch of people there watching you, waiting for your answer. So you feel under pressure, and so you end up just saying yes to make the spotlight go away. But some preparation can help you deal with that spotlight, so you don’t automatically say yes. So, how would this play out in an example? Like let’s say you’re at a work meeting and the boss says, “Hey, can you stay late to do X?”

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah. So it would be really helpful to have a policy around that. Now, if it is important, so the book is not about getting out of things that are your actual job or getting out of things because of laziness or other sorts of priorities. So it’s really about taking on stuff, and saying no to things that are not your responsibility. So the first question you need to ask is, why is he asking me? Is it super urgent? Is it super important? Is it something that can be handled in a different way? So imagine that there’s a crisis at work, and it needs to be done. Maybe that’s not the best time to push back and exert your own personal policy. Perhaps, it’s a good time to just help out, but then, after the crisis has died down, to go back and speak to your boss about a last minute change in asking me to stay late doesn’t work for me because I have these family commitments, or whatever the reason is that you wanna say no.

Alternatively, so if it’s not a crisis situation, you could just say, “Hey you know that I’ve got family commitments starting at 5:00 PM, and there’s an expectation that I’m gonna be home at 5:00, I can’t change that last minute.” So those are the kind of things that you have to learn to communicate, and learn to respond, depending on the situation. What personal policies do is that they… You’ve already decided what you prefer, what you hope will happen. So they just become easier to use as the infrastructure to be able to communicate a more effective refusal.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you give an empowered no, I think most people are gonna be like, they’re good people and they’re like, “Okay, I understand that,” and they move on. Some people though, they just can’t take a hint, and you’re gonna get a lot of pushback. How do you handle people who have a hard time taking no for an answer?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah. So we will encounter pushy askers unfortunately, and there will be people who will not take no for an answer, even if you’ve said an empowered refusal. I think recognizing how these people operate and learning to manage them is very important. So in the book, I call pushy askers walnut trees, and I use the metaphor of a walnut tree, because it becomes a vivid imagery to describe people who will not take no for an answer. So the long story short, the Black American walnut tree is essentially this beautiful tree with a luxuriant canopy, and a root system that goes out 50 feet in the area, but it dominates the landscape. It stunts the growth of all the other trees around it. And this is because it exudes into the soil, a toxin called jug lone.

And so walnut trees are like people who will not take no for an answer. It’s all about them, and what they want. Your preferences, your values, they don’t matter. What I have found in my work is that, as soon as you kind of reframe people from being toxic or jerks or difficult or all these things that people talk about in the literature and in management books, as soon as you reframe those kind of people into describing their behavior as walnut tree-like behavior, then it becomes easier for you to handle the walnut tree, easier for you to manage the pushback that they are giving you. And so it’s important to recognize how walnut trees act. You will find that walnut trees very often will make a request face-to-face. Research shows that we are 34 times more likely to say yes to a face-to-face request. They know that, and so they’ll make sure to ask you face-to-face.

The other thing they’ll do is that they’ll insist on leveraging or capitalizing on the spotlight effect. So they will insist on getting an immediate response from you, and that immediate response when you are under the glare of the spotlight is going to be yes. And so they know that, too. They often will create a home court advantage where they are in a situation where it’s impossible for you to say no to them. So they might invite you to their house, they might take you for lunch to an expensive restaurant and foot the bill. They basically put you in a vulnerable position so that that spotlight glares even more brightly. So the first point with walnut, with dealing with walnut trees is recognizing walnut tree behavior.

Second is recognizing how walnut trees respond to your no. Some walnut trees will explode with anger. How dare you say no to me, sort of walnut trees. Other walnut trees will give you the complete opposite. They’ll just do a silent treatment. You said no to me, and I’m never gonna talk to you forever. So neither response is great, but walnut trees tend to be very demanding in this way. They’re essentially trying to push you to say yes. And so I talk about two types of strategies, active pushback and passive pushback that walnut tree engage in. So active pushback is the screaming at you, or making you feel really guilty or giving you one reason after another as to why you should say yes to their request. So that’s a much more active way they are pushing back against your no. A passive way is by making you feel really guilty, telling you all the things you are going to miss. Walnut trees are great at creating FOMO or the fear of missing out. Oh, you must come because think about all the things you’ll be missing out if you don’t come. Those are passive, because what the walnut tree is trying to do in those situations is get you to change your mind, right? Yourself. So you will change your mind and say, you are right. You’re probably right. I should go.

And so recognizing the patterns of the walnut trees and then deciding for yourself, how you are going to communicate your empowered refusal. So I’ve got a whole set of strategies associated with how do you communicate your empowered refusal? So for example, if someone’s yelling at you, one strategy is to go softer, create like a vocal contrast. If someone is yelling, you talking softer makes it very salient that they are yelling. Repeating yourself. So saying, “I just said no, I think it was pretty clear that I just said no.” And so when you repeat yourself, it sounds like you are definitely not budging. And so these are all the different things that we have to learn and understand and think about as we are dealing with that sort of pushback.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that advice or that insight about walnut trees will try to make the ask in person and in their own home turf. I’ve had that happen to me. People will be like, “Hey, send me an email. Brett, I’d like to talk to you about something. Can we meet X or can we get on the phone X.” They never say why. And like, I understand like they’re trying to do a power play here. Like they’re trying to throw me off.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Of course.

Brett McKay: So I just, I balance things out like, hey, you know what? To best prepare for this, I’d like to know what it is we’re gonna talk about, so I can prepare for it and make it a productive conversation.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Precisely.

Brett McKay: And that’s how I do it. And oftentimes if they kind of are wishy-washy, it’s like, well, sorry, I can’t do it. That’s gonna be a waste of time. So, sorry.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned this earlier about this empowered no. I think people might hear this idea of empowered no and think, well, I just gotta say no to all the things now that I don’t wanna do. But you have caveats about this. It’s a nuanced thing. Sometimes you gotta say yes, even though you wanna say no. So an example of the boss putting you in the spotlight, because something has to get done, it’s a do or die. But also like, young people, when you’re young and starting off in your life, in your career, it often pays more to say yes, because you’re trying to gain experience and more, yeah, just more opportunities. And then as you get older or progress in your career, then you need to start saying no more, because you gotta start focusing on those things you are really good at.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Yes, exactly. And so as you said, rightly said, it is very nuanced and there’s a time and place for everything. So when you’re starting out in your career, and you are exploring, sometimes junior people have to go through the motions to learn about what it takes to do all aspects of the job, even if you don’t necessarily like all aspects of the job. It’s once you reach a slightly senior position that you actually have some choices about what you would like to focus on, that you have the choice. But very often when you’re young, you have to do everything. So if you think about the movie set for example, you think about Steven Spielberg. He didn’t reach there by not doing all the basic menial tasks that every gopher has to do on a movie set. You do all of that. You learn a ton through that process, and then you reach a point where you’ve gained certain expertise in certain areas, you’ve got a position where you can choose, these are the things I wanna focus on and these are the things I’m not.

So it’s really important that we allow ourselves to experience different things. And so the other aspect is even for people who are more experienced. Let’s say you are looking to reinvent yourself. When you’re reinventing yourself, very often, you have to explore different pathways. When you’re in exploration mode, thinking about what are all the different things I could do? That’s when you say yes to a lot of things. And then once you’ve had those experiences, and then you begin to focus. Okay, now I’ve experienced all these things, and I’ve decided I like this subset. And now, you have to learn to say no to the things that are distracting you from focusing on that subset. And so it is a very nuanced issue, and one has to use prudence and judgment when deciding what to say yes to and what to say no to, depending on the situation.

Brett McKay: And that’s when it’s useful to do some reflection and maybe do some… Maybe categorize those asks in the quadrant. That can be really useful.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Well, Vanessa, this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you too. Well, my website is probably a good first stop. It’s parasympatheticness… Happy to connect with listeners on LinkedIn, and you can follow me on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Vanessa Patrick, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Vanessa Patrick: Thank you so much. This has been great fun. I’ve enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Vanessa Patrick. She’s the author of the book, “The Power of Saying No”. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You will find more information about her work at her website, Also, check out her show notes at where you can find links to her resources, where you delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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