“No” Comes First

This past week I was in Chicago, speaking at a conference. I also got to see the Museum of Contemporary Art, at the edge of Northwestern University. There is an installation piece in the courtyard–a car and camper, seemingly popping out of the plaza from Europe (as witnessed by the car and trailer’s license plates). In the short time I watched it, small children and adults alike walked around it, laughed, asked where it came from. Engaging art, making sense of the museum’s logo: Fear No Art.

Chicago Contemporary Art Museum carInside, I overheard a bit of conversation that fascinated me. A younger woman was explaining to her older companion that a friend of hers thought it would be better if our ears were porcelain– that we would treat them more carefully.

“No,” the older woman said, “it would make ears fragile.” In fact, she was agreeing with the younger woman, but she started with “no.” I found that interesting, and began to listen in on other conversations.

I heard it quite often. “No,” we say, and then refine the statement. “No,” we say, and then add details. “No,” we say, and then add an example. In every case, the person could have said, “Yes,” but chose to say “No” instead.

Why would we do that? What makes us so negative? After listening for the word all weekend at cafes, the museum, stores, in a line at the airport, and the Metro, it seems to be a way to transfer the meaning of the conversation from the other person back to the one who wants to speak. “No” is a good conversation stopper.

It also seems to signal a way to introduce another person’s experience. But I wonder what it does to the ability to listen. How much do we care if the first thing we hear is “No”? How much do we want to listen in the face of this negativity? How much do we want to agree with another’s point of view if the first thing we hear is “No.”?

Listen for “No” for a few days. Listen in your own conversation, and in the replies of others. See if “Yes” wouldn’t reach a bigger audience.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writing and journaling trainer, and artist. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. Image: CAM of Chicago.