Everything I learned about gracefully declining (that is, saying no), I learned from Alan*. Alan lives at L’Arche, and he has a fantastic sense of humor, an engaging mind, and intellectual disabilities. He is my friend and my teacher.

As such, I’ll never forget the afternoon Alan gave his quintessential, “Thanks but no thanks.”

We were sitting together in the living room at L’Arche. Bill, another man with disabilities, was talking with Alan about the computer that Alan’s parents had just set up in Alan’s room. I could tell that Bill was a bit jealous, as he wanted a computer in his room. I wondered if it would be a good idea to mention a spare L’Arche computer that could be re-purposed into Bill’s space.

Before I could say anything, however, Bill said, with typical forthrightness, “Hey, Alan. How about I use the computer in your room sometimes.” (Note the absence of a question mark.)

“Hmmmmm,” Alan replied. He deliberated. (I was holding my breath.)

Alan shook his head slowly. When he spoke, his voice was calm and assured. “No, no. I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”

I exhaled. (To my mind, the quiet confidence in Alan’s reply ranked it alongside the classic:  “I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”)

Alas, Bill did not see Alan’s refusal in the same way as I did.

“Wha…? WHY NOT?!” Bill blustered. His face got red. (Again, I resisted the urge to jump in and ‘save’ Alan.)

“Well,” Alan said, still calm, “You might break it.”

“I would NOT!” Bill said, his voice rising. “I would NOT break it!”

At this point, I did jump in, mirroring Alan’s calm tone. “Hey, Bill? It’s Alan’s computer, so let’s let him decide who can use it. But that reminds me — I have some ideas to get you more computer time.” The conversation turned from there.

What did Alan do to make his refusal both graceful and potent?

1 – He took a pause. Alan didn’t rush to answer Bill, despite the commanding way in which Bill ‘asked’ to use the computer. Instead, he took a moment to think. This is an often-overlooked practice, but it can make all the difference. You have every right to take a pause when you need one. (This includes saying, “I need more time to decide; can I let you know by [X]?”)

2- He didn’t let another person’s anger throw him off course. Alan retained composure and stated his truth with assurance, despite Bill’s blustering. This is a challenging one for me:  I tend to believe that, if another person gets angry, I need to change course. By contrast, Alan showed me that, while his decision belonged to him, Bill’s anger did not. Sometimes, I simply need to let another person be angry. This can be difficult; all my sympathizing synapses start zinging. But Alan showed me that you can be a compassionate person and still stand firm in your decisions. As Cloud and Townsend write in Boundaries:  “…you must view anger realistically. Anger is only a feeling inside the other person. It cannot jump across the room and hurt you. It cannot ‘get inside’ you unless you allow it. Let the anger be in the other person.”

3- He was straightforward about his concerns. I was impressed by Alan’s candor. When asked, he stated his concerns. He was worried that Bill might break his computer. Alan wasn’t accusing Bill of anything, and he wasn’t being vindictive. He was truthfully answering the question posed to him. Likewise, when asked, “Why can’t you donate?” you might answer, “Because I cannot afford to give in that way at this time.” (Note:  you don’t need to answer “Why not?” questions. Your no is your own; you don’t need to justify it. Alan chose to answer Bill’s question, but you can say, “I’d rather not specify” if you prefer.)

4- He gave up the need to be right. Notice that Alan didn’t get the ‘last word’ in this conversation. Instead, Alan let Bill have his anger. Alan didn’t say, “What do you mean you won’t break it? You’ve broken things before!” If Alan had insisted on being right and justifying his perspective, the interaction might have led to a full-blown argument. You need to stand by your decisions, but you don’t need to take responsibility for another person’s perception of your choice.

The next time you want to say an honest ‘no’, pay attention to the resistance that may come up within you. Take time to identify what’s holding you back from an honest reply. Is it a feeling of being pressed for an answer? Is it a fear of judgment? of the other person’s anger?

What’s stopping you from saying no today? Is it the same thing that’s stopping you from being bold and taking a chance on saying yes to what you really want?

Pay attention to the myriad moments in which you say your yes and no each day. See what comes when, in the words of Jesus, you simply let your yes be ‘yes’ and your no, ‘no.’




Thank you for reading! Do share your experience and start a conversation with a comment below.

*Names have been changed.

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