Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Strength of No

No is the biggest thing people worry about hearing when they go to sell anything, new ideas to a boss, little kids selling magazine subscriptions for school fundraisers, even hardened pharmaceutical salespeople. Nobody likes “no.”

No is the biggest thing people worry about hearing when they go to sell anything, new ideas to a boss, little kids selling magazine subscriptions for school fundraisers, even hardened pharmaceutical salespeople. Nobody likes to hear “no.”

But understanding why it’s so hard to hear gives us a lot of clues to managing when we do hear it.. Even better, ‘no’ is an opportunity to think through ways to avoid ending up in a dead end during the sales cycle. ‘No’ is really full of information for us. And can be enormously empowering in keeping your sales on track and profitable.

No is one of the earliest words we learn as a baby. It’s the first experience we have as a child not getting what we want. ‘No’ creates an experience most of us would seek to reduce in our lives, not one that can create opportunities for. ‘No’ is, for most of us, deeply unsatisfying, vaguely threatening, and the opposite of helping us meet our goals.

The deepest part of our brain, the hypothalamus, is similar to the brains we inherited from the earliest mammals, and the least evolved. It is the one that sees the world in black and white: is this a threat or not? Am I in danger?

Professor Adam Grant of Wharton School of Business studying Organizational Psychology also reminds us that “no” and criticism activates the flight-or-flight system because it sounds like the beginning of rejection from our social groups. Our impulse is to protect ourselves and avoid situations where we might hear “no” and feel rejection.

As more civilized critters, we humans of the 21st century don’t have nearly the threats of our tree-dwelling or savannah-colonizing forebears. But we still have that part of our brain churning along, ready and willing to protect us.

It’s also important to recognize how much goes on in our daily lives that we don’t consciously think through and digest. We react negatively (in my case, judgmentally) to someone cutting in line in Starbucks, or being shadowy by a building entrance without thinking “is that a real threat to me or similar to a very old perception of a threat.”

But each reaction, whether it’s “That was uncool” or “I didn’t like that” or “I hate that Starbucks” or “That guy scares me” are all concluded in a heartbeat, generally without much conscious consideration.

The reaction you feel, and that we think are “feelings” are based on experiences we had longer ago than we can quickly catalog. The physical reaction is really an echo from prior negative experiences.

It is the rare person who can recognize that a negative feeling to another person or experience that occurs in a business interaction today is due to an association with an unpleasant or dangerous experience they had as a child. In terms of evolution, that split-second association is quite efficient. But without the opportunity to examine the reaction consciously, it is closer to instinct than a fresh insight you just tapped into the Universe to gain understanding on a deep and unique level.

The Construction view of emotional development in neuroscience[1] makes an excellent case that emotions don’t come from within us, like classically assumed. Rather, emotions are the physical responses we have now when we are reminded, or triggered, by experiences we had long ago.

As a child or teen, we remember events, not always in specific terms of dates and names, but in fuzzy impressions of remembered physical responses that aren’t readily accessible. But the memories aren’t quite as reliable as we think they are. They act like a shortcut, a reference to a memory, not the memory itself. It’s a headline about the event without any of the nuance that made the memory powerful.

The brain is quickly making a photocopy of an experience, a flat, polarized version of an experience that is not always clear. Think of how a photocopy of a photocopy gets distorted and sort of tilted every time it is copied; the edges blur, crisp blacks break up, grey dots find their way into white fields. This copy is considerably less reliable than the original experience.

The reaction to any experience runs through our hypothalamus, an almond-sized but vital structure at the top of our brainstem that regulates body temperature and hormone release. It pulls the physical levers of our emotional responses: if we’re alarmed and getting hot, hypothalamus sends out sweat so we can stay cool while we fight back, and cortisol to reduce pain sensation during that fight. If we are threatened and need more blood pumped to our limbs so we can run away faster, hypothalamus sends the order for more thyroid-stimulating hormone which turns up the heart rate and reduces hunger and activity in the intestinal tract so that energy can be used elsewhere. Its core job is to keep its human body in homeostasis: balanced.

But the hypothalamus, which can trace its lineage back to even before we had vertebrae, when we were marine, worm-like creatures[2], is incredibly literal and prescriptive, very plodding and dutiful in fulfilling its assignments, and never, ever creative. It reacts to a distorted image without asking “is this an accurate memory?” or “has anything changed since we were 4 years old when this information first came in?”

The hypothalamus, because of its considerable seniority among our brain functions, has carte blanche permission to send orders that create physical, visceral reactions, without any check or balance on the quality or accuracy of the messages sent.

Hypothalamus is resistant to training, and does not willingly differentiate between experiences that formed 10 minutes ago, and experiences that scared us as children.

The benefit of a knee-jerk like response to protect us from the world around us is that with a ready catalog of dangerous things the hypothalamus is armed against, we don’t have to re-learn every night when we cook dinner that the stove is dangerously hot. We should stay away from that hot part of the stove if we want a pain-free dinner. We build associations between an experience of getting burned, for example, with a flood of adrenaline to protect ourselves from getting into that situation again.

When a small child is yelled at, they may learn to not do the thing that got them yelled at, if they understand what the adult was yelling about. But more likely, the child will build an association with the person who did the yelling and process it as “people yell. I don’t like people who yell” rather than “that action I did five minutes ago caused yelling.”

Our little hypothalamus now has orders it thinks are quite clear: ‘avoid people who might yell at us’. Then it operates our physical responses like an excessively literal bureaucrat, enforcing the rules at all costs. “Things that are loud or hot are dangerous” it warns. “We should avoid them because they might hurt us, or we might need to run away or fight with them.” 

The terms of the hypothalamus are simple and primal. The progenitor of so much our sales reluctance, and the resulting missed opportunities, is about the size of an almond. The hypothalamus is disproportionately small for the amount of damage it creates.

Many more associations than we can consciously catalog were built and filed away when we were young children, but plenty also come together as teens and young professionals. Recall your first public speaking opportunity, or the time you had to ask your math teacher for an explanation about a bad grade.

Your memory of the action of asking for a direct question of an authority figure, or speaking to a crowd, gets tangled up with a flood of fight-or-flight hormones, and together they are all quickly filed in the ponderously large storage space in our minds called “Things That Are Dangerous”.

The result of a negative experience, even if you forgot the name of that math teacher or the office you ran for in 8th Grade fade from memory. Real threats, like ax murderers, are lumped in with the lowly math teacher with power over extra credit. That is the only way the hypothalamus knows how to file things: “threatening” or “not threatening.” It files them in a dark room with multiple locks and orange “Do Not Enter” signs as a way to protect you from a complicated and threatening world.

The mechanism works the same for positive and desirable experiences, too, like the smell of your granddad’s coffee in the morning at the family lake house, or the sounds of a carnival, or the rewarding plink, plink, plink of the nickel slot machine. But we generally don’t have the same frustration with those positive experiences holding us back from making our sales calls.

The protective messages from the hypothalamus play eternally in our mental background, droning and mumbling along on a dystopian loop that gets distorted and blurry with every replay, like Charlie Brown’s teacher “waak waak waaking.  We cease to hear the specific words over time.

Until we consciously re-educate this simplistic, but well-intentioned part of our brain inherited from dinosaurs, we’re locked in hypothalamus’s myopic and black-and-white grip until we break in and give it new instructions.

The only way to re-wire these associations is to examine them. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is rooted in recognizing and consciously hearing the messages we tell ourselves. We have to take some time to listen to what goes on in our inner dialog when we are avoiding a ‘no’ in order to recognize what we are actually afraid of. More specifics are discussed in the “Managing Your Inner Game” section.

I’ve found that I have stop and listen to me talk to myself often, and remind myself of this lesson repeatedly because resistance to ‘no’ is wired very deeply in our psyches.

When we can name it, we can unwind it and program it with rational explanations that will allow us to engage with new prospects. We can add nuance to suggest ‘some risk of ‘no’ is ok.”  We can update our conscious mind with new experiences like “I have more options to offer when someone says ‘no’ or I am better trained in qualifying people before we get too deeply into the sales process so the ‘no’ hurts less.

The sources of our childhood fears, once revealed, can be comically simple sometimes when we revisit them with adult eyes.

[1] How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain – Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2017

[2] European Molecular Biology Laboratory. (2007, June 30). Modern Brains Have An Ancient Core. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 5, 2019 from

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