Saying “No”

By John Weeren

For many on our campus and beyond there is nothing easy about saying “no,” a word that can sometimes end a conversation, fracture a friendship, or raise a ruckus. To quote the writer Kristin Wong, “Humans are social animals who thrive on reciprocity. It’s in our nature to be socially obliging, and the word no feels like a confrontation that threatens a potential bond.” Unfortunately, saying “no” is often inescapable, thanks to a host of intangible and practical considerations that preclude a positive response.

Nothing, however, prevents us from conveying this monosyllable in a way that eases its sting. For starters, we need to draw a clear distinction between the impulse behind what’s being asked of us and the ask itself. Presupposing worthy motives, we can validate the one while declining to embrace the other. And here conjunctions such as “while,” “although,” and “notwithstanding” can be helpful. For example, if a student organization requests permission to hold a party on a dormitory rooftop, we can repress our horror and write:

While I applaud your desire to organize an unforgettable social event, the safety risks of holding a rooftop party on a building not designed with such activities in mind leave me no choice but to ask you to propose another venue for your party.

Even when our differences are such that we must “agree to disagree,” we should acknowledge the positive intent that often underpins divergent points of view, as in this example:

I regret that you have chosen to suspend your financial support because of our recent decision, but I appreciate your taking time to explain an action that I know is motivated by concern for your alma mater.

There is frequently room for empathy—a willingness to walk in another’s shoes—if we are open to it.  How we choose to respond to the disquiet sown by our ever-changing world is a case in point.

It is true that in some respects our campus has changed beyond recognition in the past half century, and this can be disconcerting even for those of us who come and go each day, but if a measure of intimacy and cohesion has been lost, we are now in a position to provide more opportunities to more students than ever before. While it would, in my view, be a disservice to these students and society at large if we were to reduce the size of our incoming classes, please rest assured that we remain committed to preserving an educational environment in which no one, to use your words, ‘feels like a number.’

In short, even a small measure of affirmation can temper a “no” to the point that the asker can say of the asked, “At least she gets where I’m coming from.”

It is also important to depersonalize our “no” by grounding it in broadly applicable norms, policies, or principles, thereby eliminating any suggestion that our decision is capricious or inequitable. Here is one example:

Much though I appreciate receiving your proposal—and the time and energy you have invested in it—I regret that based on longstanding practice, curricular initiatives must originate within our faculty and undergo a rigorous evaluative process before we can adopt them. This is not a comment on the merits of your proposal but rather reflects the importance we attach to entrusting academic decisions to those on our campus whose engagement and expertise will be critical to their success.

We can also establish consistent standards for ourselves. Take requests for letters of recommendation, which often arrive at the eleventh hour from students whose interactions with us have been limited at best. Under these circumstances, a “no” may be the most appropriate response, but it can appear callous in the absence of impersonal criteria for deciding when to serve as a reference. Such criteria would allow us to write:

I have enjoyed our occasional interactions and admire your activism on behalf of underserved children, but I make a point of only writing letters of recommendation for students who work directly with me, ensuring I can give them a fully developed and, hopefully, persuasive endorsement. I am confident that you will be able to find someone better equipped than I to do full justice to your talents, and I wish you every success in your quest for an internship.

Not surprisingly, the best-received “no” is one that provides a cogent reason for the absence of a “yes” and, if feasible, an alternative course of action. To do otherwise is tantamount to leaving those we disappoint in a black box, knowing neither why they came up short nor how to move forward. We should, in other words, anticipate the questions “Why not?” and, if possible, “What next?” when framing our “no.” The following statement endeavors to do both.

I’m afraid my office does not have the means to fund the research you are hoping to conduct in Spain, but my colleague in the Center for International Studies does administer funds designed to defray the cost of thesis-related travel. She is a wonderful resource for students in your situation, and I encourage you to contact her.

Even when an alternative does not present itself, the door can sometimes be left ajar, as in this example:

Unfortunately, your article is much too long for our newsletter, but if you would like to share a short reminiscence of your days on the lacrosse team, I would be happy to consider including it in a future issue.

It is usually much more pleasant to say “yes” than “no,” but when the latter is couched with care and sensitivity, it can serve us well and, indeed, be surprisingly well received by others. Some years ago, on College Confidential, an unsuccessful applicant to Yale posted the letter that denied him a place in the incoming class.  So well-crafted was this document that the would-be Yalie wrote, “Reading it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!”  Now that’s taking “no” for an answer!