How to say no....

May 26, 2011

I’ve been having conversations with a couple of friends; one is waiting for a response on the personal front, and another, on the professional front. And a feature that strikes me as common to both these processes of waiting is the way a “no” is communicated.

A “yes” response to anything means, always, that there WILL be a response. The person calls or communicates, and makes it clear that what you are asking for is of interest to them (whether it is a position in their organization, a role in their lives, a plan of action, or anything else)…and that the process of engagement can go on, at the very least. But saying no..comes in different forms.

One way, of course, is to call back the other person, tell them that you considered their proposal for whatever it was, and you don’t see it working for you. This, again, is clear-cut and leaves no room for misinterpretation. Disappointment, perhaps, but that’s someone one has to deal with.

The other way is that of silence. The other person just does not call back. “Silence is consent” goes the old saw, but in this instance, silence is an implicit refusal.

The silence could be because of two things.

One, the person is still considering the proposal, and is yet unable to come to a decision. Unwilling to communicate a final “no”, the person lets the communication hang, hoping that clarity will arrive, and a clear-cut decision can later be conveyed.

But it’s the second scenario that I’m talking about here…where the person decides on a “no”, but lets the silence convey that decision, rather than communicate that decision actively.

I find this “lack of response is a response” reaction very difficult to take, and very difficult to understand. Surely, if someone has take the trouble to ask me something, I should expend equal time and effort to communicate my “no”, and also, perhaps, explain why I’ve reached the decision?

Companies, especially, seem to do this all the time. If you are applying for a job, they will respond only if the response is positive. They do not feel it worth their time to take the time and effort to send a negative response. The person asking for a job or an interview is left to have it slowly sink in that the company is not interested, and start looking elsewhere.

After talking to several people, however, I’ve come to realize that the decision not to communicate a “no”, however, is not just a simple lack of consideration for the other fact, it often is an active consideration for the feelings of the other person. “Why should I return an often hurting negative answer, when the silence can speak the message better, and softer?” seems to be the reasoning behind this.

Another reason, especially in relationships, could be an anger that does not even permit a response. If you are asking if there is something wrong, the other person is angry that you don’t even seem to know what is wrong…and feels that there is no use of even communicating a “no, things are not OK” response to you. They feel that they might as well just remain quiet and let things lapse.

This kind of “negative response” is something that I, personally, would not like at all. Surely, if I am applying for a job with you, or asking you if something is wrong in our friendship, or want to know if you can do something for me….it would be far easier for me to deal with a clear reply, that tells me where I stand (whatever it is, is not possible, or cannot be done), rather than leave me in a fog of mystification….and the troubling thought that maybe the person has just forgotten to respond, and that it is not a “no” after all (yes, that’s happened enough number of times to make it, always, a distinct possibility.)

However, I do know enough people who find this kind of “no answer” to be enough of an answer, and who are quite happy to have this way of being told that what they are asking for will not happen. They feel that they are spared the confrontation with the failure of their efforts.

Personally, though, I would much rather have both the courtesy of a response, and the unambiguity of it, rather than be kept in the penumbra between hope and despair…when my rational mind may be telling me that it’s a “no” but my emotional mind hopes that a positive response may yet be forthcoming.

One area where this kind of negative response operates all the time is when one is hiring domestic help, at least, in India. The maid may feel that the timings you ask for don’t suit, the salary is not enough..or any other reason. But the only way you’ll know about the “no” is when the person does not turn up for work. After a day or two of absence, the message does, indeed, sink in that it’s a no!

Even here, I wonder why the person who has, after all, come to you because she wants a job with you, cannot come back, express her dissatisfaction at whatever stipulation it is, and ask for a different time, more money, or whatever? Why this lackadaisical passing on?

Another scenario is when I am waiting for a mechanic or a service person to come for a scheduled visit. Often, this guy knows that he cannot make it on the day. But he will not communicate that (often, rightfully, fearing an irate response from a customer!) and leaves me to wait the entire day, with other chores piling up…and calling up the next day, when I am about to leave the house to do those piled-up jobs, to ask if he can come over!

I guess there will always be two schools of that holds that a lack of response IS a valid enough message, and the other (to which I belong) that says, a no must be communicated as clearly as a yes. I at least have the comfort that the other person respected me enough to take the time and effort to communicate the refusal, and I’m also happy that the other person took the time to consider what I said seriously, before refusing.

Well, “yes”es are also not always communicated clearly …but that’s another story!