In January I read Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes. Rhimes is the creator of televisions shows, such as Gray’s Anatomy. And her year of yeses came as a challenge from her sister who told her she rarely said yes to anything. Rhimes realized her sister was correct and decided to start saying, “yes” more often, not to be a people pleaser but to be more open to opportunities. She said yes to speaking at her alma mater’s graduation, to receiving awards, to attending red carpet events and to writing a book (which publishers had been after her to do for a few years). And with each yes came more opportunities and better feelings about herself and the choices she was making. She felt more empowered and like more of her needs were fulfilled. The messages in the book must have sunk in deep because two weeks ago I received a textbook contract with a six-week deadline from a publisher that inquired last November if I’d be interested in writing a book for them, and I found myself signing on the dotted line and saying yes. Then last Saturday, when I had planned to spend the afternoon and evening working on the book, I was invited to drinks with neighbors and overrode my initial hesitation and “I have to work” feelings and said yes. And those three hours with the neighbors resulted in additional people contributing case studies for my book and new business relationships and friendships. And I have since said yes to taking on a few more clients and to another book project…and instead of feeling overwhelmed with all of the work, I’m feeling exhilarated.
Chief executive of The Energy Project and author Tony Schwartz writes in The New York Times, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.” Schwartz did a quick experiment with his dogs to prove his point. “First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm. The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me. Next I said ‘No,’ firmly. Both dogs looked down and slunk away. I felt as bad as they did,” he writes.
Scientists have used brain scan technology to see the differences between us hearing and saying “no” or “yes”. As reported in the book Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflicts and Increase Intimacy, authors Andrew B. Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman write that the difference between yes and no is in the absence of what happens in the brain. With no, your brain reacts and goes into fight or flight mode. With yes, nothing changes in the brain; it remains in its usual state. While there may be no actual changes in our brains, popular psychology has taught that saying yes and saying positive things increases our happiness.
Schwartz equates the times when “no” becomes dominant word in our head to having an autoimmune disease, one that shuts down all of our possibilities. He said in the workplace, when a leader says, “no”, it is often emotionally translated as “I don’t value what you’re saying” or “I don’t trust you”. “Fear, anger or resignation set in, all of which kill creativity, increase distrust and discourage engagement,” Schwartz writes.
Think about the last time you had an idea for a project or a presentation or an additional direction for your team. If the powers that be greenlit the project, were you thrilled and pumped to start going on it? If you were told “no”, how did you feel? Part of the reason fear, anger and resignation set in when we hear “no” at work is because we often don’t hear the word “because” follow it, so we are left to speculate and reach our own (often wrong) conclusions.
When we say “yes” even to small things, we signal to others that we are interested in what they have to offer and say. This helps build trust and a sense of collaboration, and with collaboration comes great power and feelings of empowerment.
So I challenge you this next week, pay attention to how and how often you say “yes” or “no” in your workplace and in your personal life. It may be way more than you think.