Stoic advice: how do I say “no”?

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M. writes: how does a Stoic say ‘no’? In other words, how can being (or becoming) a Stoic help in becoming more assertive? I’m 54, but still not really assertive. It’s much better than it used to be, but, especially with regard to authoritative and/or older persons, it’s often still a problem (probably has to do with being brought up by a very dominant father) – but often with other people too. The problem is that I want to please people too much, or maybe it’s more correct to say that I don’t want/like to disappoint people. I feel guilty so quickly (it’s the same with my partner: when I tell her this, she then even feels guilty about feeling guilty too quickly).

Here’s an example: several times a year, I’m invited to attend meetings which always take place in the evening, and which last so long that I only come home around midnight (and six hours later, I have to get up again, to go to the office). An extra problem is that the place where these meetings are held is in a remote place (an abbey), which I can only reach by taking two trains (with little time for changing from one train to the other). Furthermore, I live at a remote place myself (and have no car). So going to these meetings is laborious and I risk to miss a connection between trains. Also, they last too long (three hours), whereas I’m convinced that many things that are discussed, can be arranged by mail (there’s no Skype possibility). I already said this at one of these meetings, but the response was very negative. The country I live in – Belgium - has a very strong ‘meeting culture’ – people are convinced that meetings and brainstorming are the most effective means to settle or organize things – I’m not so sure about this myself. But I’m wandering from the subject: how would a Stoic handle situations like these?

There are two issues going on here, seems to me. One is your general unwillingness to be more assertive; the second is the specific issue of your long work meetings. While the second is certainly connected to the first one, you spent more than half your letter writing about it, so it clearly bothers you! Let’s start there, then.

I tend to agree with you, and so does some of the social psychological literature on meetings and brainstorming: they are not quite as helpful as people seem to think. Especially the brainstorming part. What often happens is that one or a few assertive personalities come to dominate the proceedings, which results in most people contributing little or nothing, thereby increasing their sense of frustration and alienation from the whole exercise. Turns out that a better practice is to have people think about the issues on their own and then have shorter, more structured meetings, where specific ideas that have been circulated ahead of time are discussed by everyone.

So my first piece of advice is not really Stoic, but may be useful nonetheless: do some research on the pertinent literature and present a proposal to your group, based on actual data. Who knows, they may listen… Another suggestion is to have meetings while people stand up, so to automatically limit their length, since people get tired easily. There too there is good empirical evidence to support the idea, though it may be difficult to convince your colleagues.

That said, from a Stoic perspective I am going to give you two pieces of apparently contradictory advice. The first one is from Seneca:

Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. … [Other people] never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity – time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay. … For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. (Letters to Lucilius, I.2,3,5)

Seneca is telling us in no uncertain terms, and even in an urgent tone, that we shouldn’t waste time. Not only our life is relatively short, but the time near the end of it (“the dregs of the cask”) isn’t going to be very enjoyable. And moreover, of course, we don’t actually know how long we have. So it is senseless to waste time in unproductive or unimportant activities. And it is very inconsiderate of others to continuously request “loans” of our time, which of course they will never be able to repay. All of this, then, ought to reinforce your resolve to speak up and, if possible, not put up with your colleague’s rather time-wasteful work culture.

That said:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II.1)

Marcus was the emperor, as you know, and therefore the most powerful man in the Western world at the time. He could have literally put to death whoever was being ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful and so on with him. And yet, he reminded himself before going into his own meetings that such people are to be expected, they are a fact of life, and the best thing we can do is to educate them and, failing that, to put up with them, as he explicitly says here:

They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry. (Meditations, VI.27)

Notice here how Marcus reminds himself that people usually are in good faith, even when they are, in fact, mistaken. Your colleagues are probably genuinely convinced that long brainstorming sessions are productive and good for business. As I mentioned above, there is good evidence out there that they are, in fact, mistaken. So teach them, then. But should they not be receptive, your only other choice is to put up with them. Well, technically you also have a third choice: to quit your job. That is not an option to take lightly, of course, but depending on alternative employment opportunities, and on just how much this particular issue weighs on you, it may be worth considering, especially in conversation with your partner.

Let’s now zoom back out to the broader problem: your unwillingness to be assertive. This is not really uncommon, and I can relate to it myself. I am your same age, and I have had to actively work on being more assertive throughout my life. Indeed, I am still working on it. Don’t be deceived by the fact that I teach in front of a good number of students and regularly give public lectures to hundreds of people. I’m still fundamentally shy and far too easily embarrassed.

Here the story that comes to mind is that of young Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. Diogene Laertius tells it in his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers:

[Zeno] became a student of Crates under the following circumstances. Transporting a cargo of purple dye from Phoenicia to the Piraeus, he was shipwrecked. On reaching Athens (he was then a man of thirty), he sat down in a bookseller’s shop. The bookseller was reading aloud the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and Zeno was so pleased that he asked where such men could be found. At that very moment, fortunately, Crates happened to be walking past. Pointing him out, the bookseller said, ‘Follow him.’ From then on he studied with Crates, proving in other respects well suited for philosophy, though he was bashful about adopting Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, who wanted to cure him of this, gave him a pot of lentil soup to carry through the Cerameicus. And when he saw that Zeno was ashamed and tried to keep it hidden, he struck the pot with his cane and broke it. As Zeno was running away, the soup streaming down his legs, Crates said, ‘Why run away, little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has happened to you.’ (VII.3)

I absolutely love this story, and have adopted the last phrase as one of my personal reminders whenever I find myself in a situation where I have trouble being assertive. I mentally recite: “What’s the problem, little Phoenician? Nothing terrible is going to happen!” It works even if I’m not Phoenician…

The story is important not just because of the moral it reminds us of, but because it can easily be turned into a practical exercise. Try to turn around your behavior by purposely seeking out situations in which you ought to be more assertive, engage in a premeditatio malorum (i.e., think ahead of time of the worst case scenario, playing it in your mind, and repeating to yourself: “I can handle this”), then act. Start with situations that only cause you mild discomfort, like perhaps with your partner or some of your close friends. Then move on to more difficult scenarios, involving your colleagues, or even strangers. This sort of technique is well established in modern cognitive behavioral therapy, and one possibility is to actually ask a CBT practitioner to help you out. CBT, unlike other kinds of talk therapy, is very task-oriented, and one does not need a lot of sessions to get the hang of it and begin to make progress.

One word of caution, though: don’t over do it! There is a danger that you will become a bit too comfortable being assertive, take pleasure in it, and then do it also in situations where it would actually be better to leave space to others. But your current state seems far from that, so I doubt there is too much to worry about at the moment. You can also ask a buddy (your partner, a close friend) to help you out by monitoring your progress and give you feedback so that you can calibrate your efforts.

Think of it this way: striving to become more assertive is actually a wonderful exercise in all four of the cardinal virtues. Practical wisdom tells you that you are making an incorrect judgment when you do not assert yourself (since there is nothing to be ashamed of), and incorrect judgments are the only truly bad things that can happen to you, according to Stoic philosophy; to actually be assertive requires courage, the second virtue; it is also an implementation of the virtue of justice, because it is the right thing to do toward others, who will benefit from your input in a variety of situations; and, as I mentioned above, it needs to be done with temperance, the forth virtue, so not to overdo it.

Good luck, little Phoenician!

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