Saying “No” Using the Three Centers of Intelligence

In “The Wisdom of Saying No,” a presentation I give for women in leadership, I talk about the importance of knowing your very own values, and how saying “no” is often a way of honoring those values. But saying “no” is not that easy. It can trigger us to have our core values challenged, and getting used to saying “no” can take us on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster ride—one that’s important to stay on! Here’s why.

The reactions

When human beings are triggered, no matter how much personal development we have done or how aware we are of ourselves, our needs, and our values, there is a pattern that unfolds.

First, our core emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust) show up. They have to show up because they alert our body and our brain that a response is needed. This happens unconsciously and can’t be controlled, no matter how hard we try. These emotions pump a warning to our system, releasing energy that allows us to react to a perceived threat.

Second, our body is set on high alert, our muscles get ready, and the systems we do not need for immediate survival are shut down (examples are brain fogginess and disrupted digestion). Old behavioral patterns and habits—often referred to as the “fight, flight, freeze” mechanism—may also arise. For example, if we tend to hide from conflict we might observe a pit in our stomach, shortness of breath, a squeezing in our chest; if we tend to fight, we might feel our muscle tensing, particularly the back and shoulder muscles.

And third, our brain wants a say, too! With body and emotions so occupied, the brain scrambles a bit and shoots out mainly old warnings in the form of inner critic voices. The brain is not yet able to form proper, helpful, cohesive thoughts apart from run, hide, fight etc.

Having all this in mind can help us in moments that call for saying no—moments in which we are likely triggered.

Working with the three centers

First and most important is attending to the body: taking physical actions like stepping back, taking deep breaths, or asking for a moment, all of which can support you to respond appropriately versus automatically. This response might look like: “Oh, let me think about that, I will get back to you later.”

Depending on your body, you might need to engage in high-energy exercise like taking a brisk walk, or you might need to do something soothing and calming like meditation, yoga, or taking a bubble bath. It is different for each person and situation. Regardless, this physical activity is intended to calm our nervous system and, therefore, our mind and emotions.

Again, at such times, our mind is likely occupied by the inner critic—the voices that tell us we are not good enough, we shouldn’t be such pushovers, etc. (No doubt yours has its own script.) Reasoning with these voices is very hard to do alone. If you’ve worked with your inner critic before you might engage your favorite practices. Or can call your best friend, mentor, coach, etc. to talk about it. This person should be someone that is not just ranting with you, but someone who is able to listen and offer new perspectives. (Below are a few reflective questions that can help you along in this conversation.)

And as much as we might be used to it, we can’t suppress our emotions here. They have super valuable insights. They are there in the first place to protect us. Listen! Feel them! In my case I often react with anger. Anger is a protective / fight emotion and in my case it highlights that I may be feeling helpless, threatened or vulnerable. In the past that meant I might have had a volcanic eruption; however, since discovering that anger is more like a guard dog, I now use that information to find out what I really care about and what I want, which in turn informs my decisions and actions.

So, while it may feel like a rollercoaster ride, each step of this process is vital to changing how we respond to being triggered.

Here are some questions to support you.

  1. What emotions have been triggered here? What do they want to protect me from?
  2. What sensations are running through my body? Do I need to calm and soothe myself or do I need to release some excess energy?
  3. What thoughts are running through my mind? Are they really true, or is it the voice of the critic?
  4. Regarding this particular situation,
    • What needs are currently not met?
    • In what way do I want to honor my core values?
    • Is there something that I have to sacrifice to say no and, if so, is it aligned with my values and therefore worthwhile?

Nicole is a coach and educator currently based in California. Read more of her writing and learn about her offerings here

Photo by Ali Morshedlou on Unsplash