The Power of No: How Boundaries Help Us Live More Empowered Lives


In this episode, Vanessa Patrick shares how saying no empowers us to live the lives we want.

Saying no can seem risky. We worry about offending others, damaging relationships, or hurting our own reputation. But as Vanessa Patrick says, no is an empowering word that gives us greater agency in our lives.

Saying no “is not a rejection of the other person,” says Patric, professor of marketing at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. Instead, it allows you to set boundaries and “[give]voice to what you believe and what you care about.” In her book, The Power of Saying No, Patrick introduces what she calls “empowered refusal,” a way of saying no that’s rooted in one’s identity, values, priorities, and preferences. “An empowered no,” she says, “is about us, not a rejection of the other person.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, Patrick and host Matt Abrahams explore how to use the power of no, how to move from strategy forming to strategy implementation, and how to resist momentary pleasures that distract us from our larger goals.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Saying no can be very empowering because it asserts what we want or what we don’t want. But saying no can also help us better understand ourselves, our values, our personal policies, and our rules. My name’s Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Today I’m really excited to speak with Vanessa Patrick. Vanessa is associate dean of research and professor of marketing at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on the pursuit of pleasure and how we can avoid the lure of pleasure.

Vanessa recently released a new book entitled The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No that Puts You in Charge of Your Life. Welcome, Vanessa. So excited to have you here and to have our conversation.

Vanessa Patrick: Thanks, Matt. I’m delighted to be here and super excited to share insights [from]my book.

Matt Abrahams: Well, let’s get started. On this podcast, we’ve done a few episodes where we have explored improvisation in communication. As you and our listeners know, perhaps the most important and famous rule in improvisation is to say “yes, and.” Yet you’ve written a book all about saying “no.” Can you share the importance of saying no and what it can do for us?

Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely. It is, I believe, very, very important for all of us to say no to the things that get in the way of us living our best possible life. I think it is important for us to recognize the tradeoffs that we have to make every time we make a decision. When we say yes to something, we are saying no to something else. The way I see it is, in some situations, we want to grow the conversation and engage in a constructive dialogue with the other person. For example, when we are brainstorming or when we are conducting some sort of idea generation at work, or even when we are talking to our kids, in those situations, we want to use the improvs rule, the “yes, and” rule.

In other situations, where we want to say no, we are better off keeping it very short and very concise. In those situations, we do not want to [enable]the conversation. We want to convey our stance, and we want to communicate that stance effectively.

Matt Abrahams: So it sounds like we need to just be balanced in our approach, that there are times where “yes, and” really can help us, and then there are times where being very definitive and certain in saying “no” can help us as well. Now isn’t it true that at times saying no can have negative results, doing so can damage existing relationships, prevent new ones from developing, and have lasting consequences? Are there ways to say no that avoid these negative consequences?

Vanessa Patrick: You know, the simple two-letter word no is really daunting for a lot of people for the reasons that you outlined. People are super anxious about saying no because they are concerned about damaging relationships with [the yes]and harming their own reputation. The solution I [offer]in my book is empowered refusal. I coined this term of empowered refusal to describe a way of saying no that stems from your identity and gives voice to your values, priorities, preferences, and beliefs. When we say an empowered no, our no is about us, not a rejection of the other person.

So for example, in our research, we recommend that we use empowered language that implicates our identity, like using the words “I don’t.” When you say, “I don’t eat chocolate cake,” or “I don’t take phone calls between six and eight in the evening because that’s family time,” it comes across as much more empowered. It’s easier to say no, and you’re more persuasive. In contrast, using the disempowered “I can’t — I can’t eat chocolate cake,” “I can’t take a call between six and eight in the evening,” almost begs the question why and invites pushback from the [asker]. And this might result in you saying yes when you actually want to say no.

Matt Abrahams: I find this notion of empowered refusal really interesting because it’s one vehicle through which we can claim and publicly state our values. And I appreciate you giving some very specific guidance in terms of word choice. So “don’t” is different from “can’t.” And that helps us be definitive, helps us set clear set boundaries, and reduces the likelihood of pushback. So that’s very useful. You’ve shared some ideas about verbal things we can say to be empowered in our saying no. Are there nonverbal components as well, things we do with our body and voice that can also help us say no?

Vanessa Patrick: Effective communication, of course, is the information that we convey using both our words, which is the content of the communication, as well as our nonverbal cues, the manner and the style in which we speak. So of course, we talked about empowered language just a minute ago where we talked about using what I call in the book standing upwards, words like “I don’t,” “I never,” “I always,” which convey conviction and determination. But when you couple those words with an empowered stance, your body language also needs to convey that level of empowerment. In fact, it’s very hard to say, “I don’t eat chocolate cake,” and come across as disempowered in your body language.

Another effective way to communicate a refusal while maintaining the relationship with the asker is to use positive body language cues, to secure that relationship with a genuine smile, or leaning forward, or a kind gesture. So while your words are communicating that, hey, I’m saying no to you, it is not a rejection of the other person but just giving voice to what you believe in and what [you care].

Matt Abrahams: I really think that distinction you just made is very important. Saying no does not mean you’re rejecting another person. Saying no means you’re standing up for something that you believe in. And having congruent nonverbal behaviors helps support the relational message while also explaining or demonstrating the value message, things like being big in body posture, being open, making good eye contact, smiling — all of that can be helpful. And we need to be mindful both of the words we use and the way we say them. So thank you for that reminder and for the clear examples.

Your book not only makes the case for empowered refusal, but you also provide a toolkit to help us develop and hone this skill. Can you define the competencies that make up your art, A-R-T, framework?

Vanessa Patrick: Yes, I outline three competencies for the ART of empowered refusal. ART stands for Awareness, Rules about decisions, and Totality of [self]. I propose that the first competency that we need to invest in if we want to become more effective in saying no is deepened self-awareness. To invest in self-awareness helps us [sift]between the good-for-me activities and the not-good-for-me activities and helps us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The second competency is to make rules, not decisions, based on that self-knowledge. So once we have the self-knowledge and can identify what we care about, what we believe in, what we stand for, it help us to make simple rules that guide our actions and decisions. When we lean on what I call personal policies that we can establish to communicate our no response, we move from being frazzled and frustrated when someone makes an ask of us to being much calmer and [more choosey]and empowered, and we come across with much more conviction and determination.

Matt Abrahams: We recently had an episode where we talked about creating your own personal manifesto. And a lot of the key points there were to find your values and what you stand for. And I hear the first step or the first competency that you advocate for is doing something very similar. I’m curious about these personal policies that you talk about because I think it’s one thing to understand your values. It’s another thing to set up rules and policies that help you live those values. Can you share with me an example perhaps of a rule or a policy that you use in your life or you’ve seen others use?

Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely. So a [person’s] policies are these simple rules that give voice to your values and priorities, [impressions], and beliefs. So for example, a personal policy would be every time I take my first sip of coffee in the morning, I just [stop]and [am]grateful for the day. It’s a small meditative moment that I have just incorporated into my daily life to just be grateful for everything good that’s happening. And that’s a ritual. So I divide personal policies into different types, but this is a ritual. You could also have decision rules. So I have a [solemn]decision rule that I do not take redeye flights. I do not function very well —

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Vanessa Patrick: — [unintelligible]when I take a redeye flight because I don’t sleep very well on planes. And so having a personal policy in place which says I don’t take redeye flights really helps make the decision about when to take a flight. So these are shortcuts that we can put in place that just ease the way we make our decisions but also lead us to be happier and enhance wellbeing in the long run.

Matt Abrahams: I can see how these would help reinforce the ability or make it easier actually to say no when you have these rules in place. You’ve thought about them; you understand why they exist because they’re in alignment with your values. And so when one of these situations comes up where, in essence, you’re being tested or challenged, you say no just because I have that rule. So for example, I working with my children, I have a rule: You don’t drive the car after a certain time of day, even if you ask. And so it’s helpful to make it easier for you. I appreciate that, and I definitely have spent some time creating my own personal manifesto thinking about my values. I think I need to take the next step, as you’ve advocated, to find those policies and practices that follow from that. So thank you.

So you know, Vanessa, I find this notion of personal policies and rules really fascinating, especially since they come from the values that we’ve thought through. Do you have any further advice or guidance on these personal policies?

Vanessa Patrick: So personal policies are different from boundaries. And it’s really important to make that distinction because boundaries are like the barbed wire that we put up to protect ourselves from outside forces invading on our territory. Personal policies are different because what personal policies are, are these pretty red ropes, which are actually called stanchions that you see in a Trader Joe’s or in a movie theater that you set up for yourself that help guide your decisions and actions in the way that you want to go and that are aligned with your values and priorities. And I think that it’s very powerful to reframe what we care about and what we want in terms of personal policies instead of boundaries. Then we become much less reactive and much truer to our own selves.

Matt Abrahams: One of the things I’m taking away from that — and the visualization is really powerful — those nice red ropes that guide people in a certain direction versus the barbed wire fences, and in a boundary sounds defensive, whereas these policies sound more forward thinking and momentum based. So very helpful. Thank you.

So let’s imagine that I’ve mastered the art of saying no. I feel empowered in the refusals that I do. What advice do you have for managing the potential pushback or ostracizing that might result? So when my children want to drive the car after the rule that I have, how do I deal with that pushback?

Vanessa Patrick: I think the beauty of empowered refusal is that, because it is based on your identity, it’s easier to withstand that external pressure and stay steadfast and strong. Now unfortunately, we will come across people who will not take no for an answer, and we have to deal with those pushy askers. And so in the book, I talk about a bunch of strategies that you can deal with pushy askers. One that I think is really handy is to use technology as a buffer. So for example, research shows that we are 33 times more likely to say yes to a face-to-face request.

So if you are getting pushback from a pushy asker in a face-to-face request, you might choose to convert that conversation to digitally mediated conversation. You know, sending no by email is much easier than repeating your no face to face. Sometimes, all it takes is an emoji with a thumbs-down sign, and that communicates a no more than words can. And so I think that leaning on technology to help us reinforce our position in saying no can be super interesting and important.

Matt Abrahams: I’m shocked by that statistic. I know personally for me, it’s definitely hard when the person’s standing right across from me, but 33 times is a lot. And I think your idea of putting some distance between you, maybe through technology, et cetera, can really reduce that. I certainly feel more comfortable with a refusal that is virtual than one that is in person. So I appreciate that advice.

So I want to get very personal here. Your model helps us say no to others, but does it help us say no to ourselves? For example, you’ve talked about having a no rule to chocolate cake. I struggle with a no rule to chocolate chip cookies or wanting to listen to one more podcast episode. Are there ways that we can help say no to ourselves?

Vanessa Patrick: Yes, absolutely. In a recent study that I published in the “Journal of Consumer Research” with my coauthor Henrik Hagtvedt, we studied how empowered refusal can be used as an effective way to self-regulate. So in a similar way that “I don’t” works in communicating an effective no to others, it also works as effective self-talk. By implicating our identity, we [unintelligible]ourselves feeling that we believe in certain things. And when we hear ourselves talking with empowerment, we bind that and are more likely to resist temptations like chocolate cake, chocolate cookies, or that one extra podcast.

Matt Abrahams: So the self-talk we have allows us to reinforce and reaffirm our values and beliefs and can lead us to therefore be stronger in tempting situations. Very interesting. I absolutely need to practice that. My waistline will benefit from it, and my sleep as well. You talked a little bit about your research. So I’d like to change the subject. And a while back, you and a few of your colleagues did some research on how to transition from strategy forming to strategy implementing. And one of the topics that people are really interested on this podcast is about strategy. How do we formulate strategy, and then how do we execute on strategy? So I’m curious, what did your research suggest, and what role does communication play in going from formation to implementation?

Vanessa Patrick: That’s a great question. There is a huge body of research, as you know, that talks about the difficulty that teams have with the transition from planning to implementation and the implementation failures that result. Little research, however, focuses on how to best navigate the transition between strategy and implementation. So our research helps identify a set of six leadership nudges that aid in crossing this chasm. We based on our research on the idea that planning is inherently more pleasurable than implementation. And so we identify two broad sets of nudges. The first set of nudges is nudges that improve our [willpower]to be able to transition from planning to implementation. And the second is the decrease in the desire to continue planning and create excitement instead on implementation.

Throughout the paper, we talked about the importance of communication, being able to use these insights to be able to get people in their teams to shift from the planning mode to the implementation mode. One of the ways in which we can do this is to be able to figure out how to convert your vision to your action with your teams and to do that by creating these very strong and compelling outcomes. And so focusing on using communication to focus on outcomes helps to get people to switch gears and helps them move from a planning mode to an implementation.&

The other thing that is really exciting and which I also talk about in the book is the switch from using verbs to nouns. So there’s research that shows when you ask voters to vote and you give them a badge which says, “I am a voter,” which basically talks about your identity and who you and talks about you in terms of using nouns, you’re more likely to vote. However, if you give that same badge to people with the words “I vote” or “I voted,” it focuses on a verb, and it’s less likely to result in action.

Matt Abrahams: So many things there to unpack. So first, we need to nudge people out of their planning mindset and get them into an execution mindset. And it sounds like we can do that in many ways, including getting them excited about very specific outcomes. The language we use —and we talk about this with Jonah Berger, this notion of turning verbs into nouns. So instead of voting, we are a voter, and that can help. And helping people understand that their actions can help achieve these outcomes, can motivate people in that direction. Very, very important. A lot of people spend a lot of time planning and not really planning to execute on the strategy. So that’s very helpful.

So before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Vanessa Patrick: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: All right. So question number one: If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five- to seven-work presentation slide title, what would it be?

Vanessa Patrick: Leave a place better than you found.

Matt Abrahams: I believe my mother has told me that for years and years. Tell me more. Why is that important for you?

Vanessa Patrick: I think that statement embodies so much as it comes to communication, so you enter a communication with positivity and with the willingness to share and to be true to yourself but also to create value for the listener. And so when you engage fully with your whole selves and you appeal to both the heart and the mind of the listener, you do leave a place better than you found it.

Matt Abrahams: I love it. And I love it because of everything you said but also because it forces you to think about what it is you’re doing and saying. And it helps you to see that you need to be audience-centric and -focused to help make it a better outcome, a better environment as a result of your communication. Many of us can become very self-focused and focus on our message and not so much the outcome of that message. Good advice. I like that. Question number two: Who’s a communicator that you admire and why?

Vanessa Patrick: So I admire many, many communicators. But one that I deeply admire from more recent times is a woman called Mellody Hobson. Mellody is the President and Co-CEO of Ariel Investments, which is a black-owned mutual fund and investment management firm. Mellody was named Time Magazine’s Hundred Most Influential People in the World. And not only does her content matter — and she speaks on really important topics on financial decision-making, financial literacy, and financial inclusion, but she does so in a way that is so powerful and so passionate and so memorable. She speaks to your head because she’s talking about really, really important financial information, but she does so with stories and with really heartfelt emotions and strong belief that makes it an amazing communication experience.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. I’m definitely going to listen in on some of her communication. It sounds like one of the things that really drives and motivates you to listen to her is her ability to connect through story and communicate complex financial information. Final question, question number three: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Vanessa Patrick: As a marketing professor, I do think about this quite a bit. And I think that there are three main things that I would point out. One is authenticity and trustworthiness.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Vanessa Patrick: Second is the ability to communicate or appeal to both the head and the heart. I think that effective communication is a combination of both rational elements as well as emotional elements. And the third is to really focus on the listener, to create value in your communication such that you have left the dialogue better than you found it. And I’m going to cheat and say one more, which is [smile], because I think by smiling when you communicate, not only do you look warm and caring and engaged, but you even sound that way, which I think is super important in all communication.

Matt Abrahams: I like that your three ingredients combine both how we say something through our smile, it has us thinking about our audience, but it also has us thinking about our content, both the rational and the emotional components to build that authenticity and trust that you speak about. So those ingredients are going to combine certainly to an effective communication recipe.

Vanessa, this has been fantastic. Thank you. I have no regrets about our conversation about saying no, and it really helped me to think through my own personal priorities that I have and personal policies. So I appreciate that. Thank you for being here, and I wish you great success with your new book, The Power of Saying No: The New Science of How to Say No that Puts You in Charge of Your Life. Thank you.

Vanessa Patrick: Thank you, Matt. It was my pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.


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About Author

Matthew Abrahams

Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative and innovative educator and coach. He has published research articles on cognitive planning, persuasion, and interpersonal communication.

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