NO is a complete sentence.

I remember when I got to flight school and my class date was delayed for a short three weeks. Disappointed? Yes. But it was only three weeks. I was assigned a temporary job during the interim and that is where I learned an important leadership lesson. 

A single marine captain wanted me to work for him. I remember clearly reporting to his office. After introducing myself as Ensign Bell, he asked me two questions that I will remember for the rest of my life. First, he asked me if I could type. (Remember, it was the early eighties.) Really? I had just graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and this guy wanted to know if I could type? 

Crazy responses flew through my head. “What planet are you on? Obviously not the same one as me!” “Are you serious?” With my fury building, I thought, “Who the @#$! do you think you are?” Then I remembered he was senior to me. 

Luckily, my time at the Academy taught me how to control my emotions, so the words in my head did not immediately come out of my mouth. I collected my thoughts, then responded, “Sir, the reason I joined the Navy is to fly. If I had to type for a living, I would starve to death. I don’t type, sir.” 

I had learned at the Academy that you can say nearly anything as long as you say it in a respectful manner and finish your sentences with either “sir” or “ma’am.” Thinking that might be enough to satisfy him, I was flabbergasted by his next question. 

“Well, can you make coffee?” He added, “You will be responsible for making coffee each day.” 

I was not going to make anyone’s coffee. Period.

Again, my Naval Academy training took over, and I responded appropriately. 

“I do not drink coffee, and I do not make coffee, sir,” I said emphatically. 

He had no idea what to do with me at that point. Was this sexual harassment? Maybe. Was he challenging boundaries? Most definitely. 

However, I was clear. I was in flight school to fly; not to type, not to make coffee, and certainly not to go out on a date with him. 

I worked for him for three short weeks. Our work relationship, though professional, remained a bit awkward. My hope is that he learned something from me just as I did from him. I hope he learned from me to respect women as professionals, not denigrate them as personal assistants. For me, it was another lesson in knowing and holding my boundaries. 

Today, you may not be asked if you can type or make coffee, but you may be asked to do something beneath your skill set. You may be asked to order lunch, plan the next office party, or take notes at the next meeting, when no man or colleague is asked to do the same. 

At some point in your career, your boundaries will be challenged. Be ready. Know and keep your boundaries, both professional and personal. Be clear about why you are doing what you have chosen to do and hold fast. As my friend Kim teaches, “Your boundaries are yours and no one else’s—just as clear as the nose on your face.” 

Although we may be angry (or even afraid) when our boundaries are challenged, it is important we take a moment to collect ourselves in order to respond appropriately rather than react emotionally. Use humor or just give a direct no. I tell women whom I mentor, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” 

For all you grammarians out there, I do not want to debate whether “No” is a complete sentence. The point is that when we say no, we often feel we must explain ourselves or justify our response. I think this is especially true for women. Sometimes we get wrapped up in long-winded rationalizations because inwardly we feel we need to say yes even when we want to say no. But no explanation or justification is necessary. 

I laughed out loud when I read that author and former executive Shelly Tygielski says, “Learning to say ‘no’ and letting it hang out there all alone in its glory is a small kind of superpower.” Indeed it is a superpower! When we set and protect our boundaries, we usually find they are respected. 

Recognize too that sometimes protecting your boundaries means walking away. I mentioned earlier that my time at the Naval Academy taught me that I had to be selective in the battles I chose to fight. Not all battles can be won. Just because you can engage does not necessarily mean you should. 

NO is a complete sentence and a great lesson for all of us. Want to know more? Check out my book Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s Turbulence and Learning to Fly High.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash