When you say
“yes” to others, make sure you’re not saying “no” to yourself.

– – – Paul Coelho

There’s a popular misconception that saying “yes” is spiritual and saying “No” is not. But it’s a far more complex issue. Granted, there are times when saying yes is courageous and the right thing to do, but saying “NO” can be just as courageous. At times, even more so.

Some years back, I was writing a memoir for a legendary diva, rushing toward a deadline and trying not to burn out. I’d just finished dinner, I was exhausted and ready to shut my eyes when I saw that there was a message on my voice mail. It was my client. She must have called when I was in the shower and her voice was filled with

“Call me as soon as you get this,” she said. “We have to go over the fourth chapter. It needs work.”

It was 9 PM, I’d written all day, I’d shut down the computer and I wasn’t about to start working again. I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and said, “No.” I was afraid if I didn’t agree in a diva. But I also knew that if I kept working, it would be diminishing returns. I ignore her message. I was anxious but I talked myselfdown. I brushed my teeth, I washed my face, I climbed under the covers and went to sleep. The next morning, it was business as usual. She didn’t say anything about the night before and neither did I, but I had shown her that I wasn’t the hired help, that we were in this together and from then on, she treated me with much more respect.

Something happens when you see an A-list celebrity for the first time. Not on TV or in a movie. Their face is familiar even though you’ve never met them and there’s a “wow” factor as the two-dimensional image springs into a three-dimensional human being. Most of them have tangible charisma and it can be exciting. It’s hard not to be intimidated when Diana Ross is humming along with her own music. When six-foot, nine-inch Magic Johnson walks into the conference room in his workout clothes and offers me his hand that’s twice the size of mine. When Kenny Loggins plays me a soon to be recorded song and Grace Slick who I’ve labeled “the mouth,” meets me at her front door, looked me up and down and said, “You have blond hair, long legs and big tits. I hate women like you. Come on in.”

It’s difficult to disagree with these powerful people I want to please them, but I have to do what’s best for the book and what will get the job done. When you say “No,” an interesting process occurs. The client thought they were immune to the human condition, but they discover that they aren’t. They thought that writing a memoir would be an enjoyable task, that I would let them do whatever they want
– until they bang into a brick wall. Something in their past floors them, they feel shame and they want to skip over it. I let them know it wouldn’t be a good idea. The statement, “NO, that doesn’t work,” shocks them. They are surrounded by “Yes” men and women most of the time and they become defensive when someone doesn’t
agree with them. They may be immensely talented, most of them are, but inevitably, their initial enviable image is overpowered by reality. Their self-confidence is replaced with awkwardness. “Writing a memoir will be great fun” turns out to be confronting and upsetting as the actor in the movie or the musician behind the guitar crumbles under the weight of not measuring up. Of spilling their secrets. They’re afraid of getting found out that they’re not who the world
thinks they are. I find a way to be gentle but and as I encourage them to go deeper, they realize that they’re facing someone who will not back down and who knows more than they do about the writing process.

At some point, sooner rather than later, they have to hand over the reins and when they face the hard fall off the pedestal, they have to know that I’m there to catch them. They start to follow my directions and if they believe me when I tell them that something doesn’t work, they allow me to guide them through the maze of their lives. When I see a book project wandering in the wrong direction, I have to calmly
guide them back to Square One. “Let’s try this again,” I say. “The other way didn’t work, so we’re going to do it this way.” That’s a different way of saying no but it has the same effect.

Saying “NO” doesn’t come easy for me. Like so many of my peers, I grew up with the messages that it was best to be compliant, to go with the flow, to avoid speaking up. My mother taught me that. When an agent was cheating me out of money I had earned, she told me to ignore it. “You need him,” she said. “Don’t go against the grain.”

But what if the grain is detrimental and hazardous to your health? Last year, I said “NO” to a longtime relationship with a friend who was draining my energy and when I finally let her go, I felt great relief. I wish I had done the same with a man who made my life miserable and a client of questionable ties to royalty who was
never satisfied. I let these situations go on for far too long and now I can’t go back. What I can do is see my behavior for what it is and develop the strength to avoid agreeing with someone when I don’t.

Motivational speaker, Iyanla Vanzant says, “Your ‘saying no’ muscle has to be built up to be the authentic you.

In this “Me, too,”] phase of our lives, we are bringing back and honoring some cliches that have taken on new meaning.

What part of NO do you not understand?

NO is a complete sentence.

NO means NO. It doesn’t mean YES.

Mahatma Ghandi

A “No” utteredfrom deepest conviction is better and greater than a “Yes” merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.