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QUESTIONS FOR Vanessa Patrick

Interview by Carolyn Drebin

A researcher and author describes ‘the art of empowered refusal.’

Vanessa Patrick


In both our professional and personal lives, we often say Yes to people, even when we know our honest answer is No. Why is that?

No is such a simple two-letter word, but it’s really hard to say. Through my research, I’ve identified three main reasons for this and they all relate to other people. The first is our concern for relationships. We want to have, and keep, our friends and we worry that saying No will disappoint the people we care about. The second reason is our concern for reputation — how people view us and what they say about us when we are not in the room. We say Yes when we want to say No, when we are anxious that saying No will result in other people not seeing us in a positive light. And the third reason is simple inability. We have not been socialized or taught how to say No effectively. Learning how to do this is an important skill for all of us, regardless of age or occupation, because over time, it enables us to reach our potential by focusing on the things that are most important to us. There is very little upside to saying Yes when you really want to say No.


Please explain the term ‘empowered refusal.’

Put simply, empowered refusal is a way of saying No that stems from our identify and gives voice to our values, priorities, preferences and beliefs. When we use empowered refusal, we come across as being in control — in the driver’s seat of our own life — and we get less pushback from others. By learning the tools of empowered refusal, the people in your life will start to understand that when you say No, you are speaking from a place of authenticity. By giving voice to your identity, empowered refusal communicates that your No is about you — it’s not a rejection of the other person’s offer.

The key to empowered refusal is that it stems from within us. We use our identity — who we are — to convey conviction and determination.


I encourage people to audit their calendars and ask themselves if each to-do item on the list reflects their priorities in life.


Talk a bit about some of the traps people get involved in when they don’t say an effective No.

We need to be self-aware in order to convey an empowered No. In my research, I often come across people who label themselves as ‘people-pleasers.’ This is shorthand for saying that we want to say No, but we’ll say Yes because we can’t help it or we feel guilty. By avoiding the use of labels that disempower us, we can learn to avoid the traps where we say Yes when we want to or should say No. I believe that the way we speak to and about ourselves truly matters. We need to begin to think about ourselves as people who say Yes to things that matter, and No to things that don’t.

Another common trap is the Acquaintance Trap. When we are close with someone and have a strong relationship, it is easier for us to say No because we understand that the relationship is secure and will not be damaged by our refusal. Similarly, it is easy to say No to a complete stranger, since it is unlikely that we will ever see them again, and we don’t really care what they think. In between these two sets are people we would call acquaintances. This group makes up the majority of people we interact with and the ones we are most likely to struggle with saying No to. I call it the aquaintance trap because these are people with whom we have relatively weak relationships, yet we still want them to see us in a positive light.

Another trap I’ll mention is the House of Cards Trap. We fall into this trap when we become overly concerned with our reputation. Maybe we believe that our competence is tied to taking on more tasks, and we convince ourselves that we will somehow find the time to get everything done. To avoid this trap, you need to think critically to determine three things: what you must do, what you want to do, and what you realistically can do. To avoid the House of Cards Trap, I encourage people to audit their calendars and ask themselves if each to-do on the list reflects what they prioritize in life. Too often, we postpone things that are meaningful and important to us in favour of things that seem urgent in the moment, but that ultimately, are not important.


What is the ‘A.R.T.’ of empowered refusal?

There are three competencies that we must learn in order to master the art of empowered refusal. The acronym A.R.T. stands for Awareness, Rules rather than decisions and Totality of self.

First, you have to master self-awareness, because empowered refusal is you-centred. Reflect on yourself and have an awareness of your values, priorities and preferences. Your ability to distinguish between activities that are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you will help you determine what to say Yes or No to.

The second competency is the ability to use that deepened self-awareness to formulate simple rules that guide your choices, actions and decisions. I refer to these as ‘personal policies.’ When we rely on personal policies we communicate our refusal with more conviction.

The third competency is totality — the ability to keep in mind that effective empowered rejection requires both verbal and nonverbal cues. A refusal is an act of communication, so when you use empowered language — ‘I don’t,’ ‘I always’ or ‘I never’ — you should accompany those words with empowered body language as well as non-verbal cues like a smile, a forward inclination or a friendly gesture to emphasize that your refusal is about you and is not a rejection of the asker.


How do personal policies differ from excuses?

Personal policies are the internal-to-us principles that shape our actions and decisions and determine how we live our lives. Excuses are the things we look to outside of ourselves to explain why we can’t do something. When you use an excuse, you communicate that there is an extenuating circumstance that prevents you from doing something — and that if it didn’t exist, you would happily oblige. In contrast, your personal policy says to the world, ‘Sorry, but this is the kind of person I am. This is what I believe in and care about.’ It is a long-lasting element of your identity, whereas an excuse is, by its nature, temporary.


To help people define their personal policies you have developed the DREAM framework. Please describe it.

The DREAM framework begins by identifying an area in your life that you want to change. With this in mind, you then reflect on how you would like things to be. Ask yourself, ‘What values and beliefs do I have with regards to this domain, and what do I want to change?’ Answering questions about our priorities and preferences helps us to understand where we stand on specific issues so that we can establish policies. In my research I’ve found that observing how and where you operate best, reflecting on that and then setting policies around it is an effective way to do this. Self-awareness is key here. People often confuse personal policies with goals or boundaries. True personal policies are your specific operating system. Everyone is different, and it’s ok to be honest about it.

A Framework for Establishing Your Personal Policy

Diagnose: identify pain points in your life
Reflect: look within with understanding
Establish: formulate your policy
Act: get started and implement it
Monitor: update and change it as required


How to Harness Your Full Potential

  • Say No to things that don’t matter
  • Use empowered refusal
  • Develop your system of personal policies
  • Accept the empowered refusal of others
  • Achieve a new harmony


Do gender stereotypes come into play when it comes to empowered refusal?

Anecdotal and research-based evidence show that women, in general, have a harder time saying No — and that mostly comes down to their desire to keep the peace, avoid conflict and maintain harmony. Society tends to expect women to be more altruistic and accommodating than men. In fact, research finds that women are significantly more likely to say Yes to workplace requests. They are also 44 per cent more likely to be asked to take on tasks that have nothing to do with their actual jobs compared to men and are more likely to say Yes to performing these tasks: 76 per cent of women will say Yes compared to 51 per cent of men.


What are the best strategies to deal with pushback to a No?

Just because you master the art of empowered refusal doesn’t mean that you will not encounter a pushy asker who will not take no for an answer. They might use active pushback so that when you say No, the person doing the asking uses aggressive or external pressures to convince you to change your mind. They will show negative emotions or come up with reasons why you should change your mind. Passive pushback is a more indirect way of getting you to change your mind via things like guilt-tripping or the silent treatment. Learning to stand your ground takes energy, skill and practice. Once you recognize the type of pushback you’re dealing with, you can respond without caving to pressure.

The best weapon against pushback is having a meaningful purpose, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and having the confidence to handle what is thrown at you. Practice reinforcing your position, re-stating your personal policies and creating distance between yourself and the asker. Using technology as a buffer, buying time or even delegating your No to someone else can also help. 

Vanessa Patrick is the Associate Dean for Research, the Bauer Professor of Marketing, and lead faculty of the Executive Women in Leadership Program at the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston. She 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 (Sourcebooks, 2023).

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