How to Say No by Christina Battle


how to say no / should you say no / maybe you should just say no

Thinking about saying no:
I remember once sitting in the film office at SFAI when George Kuchar was telling stories about how he prefers to never say ‘no.’ If anyone ever asked him to participate in something; to make something; or to contribute to something; he preferred to always say yes. Because, he explained, you never know, and you never know what you might miss out on if you don’t try. Often cited as one of the most “prolific American independent film and videomakers” (Video Data Bank), from Kuchar’s practice, this sensibility of always doing, always trying, always making, is more than visible.

I always thought this was good advice – I also like to do and take part in stuff – but George’s suggestion to instantly say ‘yes’ to any and all invitations also struck me as unsustainable. Surely there were times when he just didn’t feel like saying yes. It wasn’t quite the pace or the degree of availability I wanted in a practice for myself.

This open and enthusiastic sensibility that George wore so wonderfully makes some assumptions about invitations themselves that I’ve come to learn aren’t always equal. It assumes that invitations come to you with the same openness and generosity of care that George brought to accepting them; over the years, I’ve come to learn that not all invitations are offered with such intention.

My dad always shared a lot of George’s sense of wanting to do stuff: wanting to collaborate, wanting to share, and wanting to organize with others. But his advice always came with what I think is a brilliant strategy of embedded moderation. When talking with someone who wanted to collaborate after hearing more about his ideas, he’d always say something like: sure, put it down on paper and give me a call, we can talk more about it – before promptly leaving the conversation. Ninety percent of the time, he’d say, people would never follow through. It was a strategy for leaving the door open and signalling an eagerness to collaborate, but only if the other was also willing to contribute and put the work in. Otherwise, he'd learned: people always end up stealing your time, your energy – and your ideas.

This tug and pull of mostly being interested in saying ‘yes’ but with strategies for inserting a ‘no’ are constantly on my mind. Finding the right balance can be tricky, and while I try to find strategies that work well for me – I fail at it a lot of the time. I really appreciate when others say no to invitations that I’ve sent. I appreciate when they take the time to be honest about their needs and are attuned to their capacity. It shows they care about the work they do and how they do it, and that this particular invitation just wasn’t a good fit. I always take note and keep future opportunities in mind to have other chances to work with them.

When I first started thinking about how to approach this invitation from TNG to consider how to say no, I thought I’d outline a decision tree, a sort of if/then to move through as others consider strategies of response for themselves. I quickly realized, though, that the process was far from linear and that the considerations often going into my decision making when it comes to saying no are complex: sometimes messy; often not easily articulated; and a lot of the time, quite invisible—even to myself. What I thought might look like a tree instead looks like a massive tangled web of intersecting, overlapping, and at times, contradicting deliberations. Presented here as a series of considerations, my hope is to offer a sense of how I’ve come to say no in the past, and to try to make sense of how these considerations might reveal a sense of strategy (for myself as well).

How to Say No by Christina Battle

What even is an invitation anyhow?  I think of an invitation as a chance to engage – ideally, it comes as a gesture of care.  An invitation should provide as much information as possible to help you make an informed decision as to whether to engage. The invitation itself is a first chance to ask questions, to clarify needs, to be honest about what you can and can’t do, and to make your position and response clear.  As an opportunity to engage, an invitation should necessarily include an element of give and take. If it doesn’t – it’s not a good invitation – and is likely indicative of things to come. (This is information to pay attention to.)

Does the invitation feel good? (This is information to pay attention to.) If yes: Maybe you wanna just say yes.  Maybe it feels pretty good, but you wanna be sure first: Ask some more questions – tell them what more you need to know before you commit. How to ask for what you need as a part of the invitation process: Consider what would make the invitation feel good to you. What would help you get more excited about it? Maybe it’s a question of needing more time, or bringing someone else in to work along with you, or the artist fee just doesn’t seem realistic given the amount of work anticipated.

If you’re on the fence: What do you need the invitation to be in order to say “yes?”  Consider explaining to the invitee what it is that you need. (More time? More resources? More money?) I think invitations should be considered opportunities to engage and negotiate. They might not be in a position to make adjustments to their invitation, but sometimes explaining what you need opens the conversation up to future invitations that are more flexible and aligned with your needs.

Ask for clarification:  Consider the timeline: is it caring? Does it consider all of the work that needs to be done? Do you have time for it? If not, ask for clarification and suggest a timeline that works for you instead. Consider the money: is it realistic for the invitation? Does it follow recommended CARFAC rates? Are there assumptions made that you will be covering the cost for any materials utilized through the project? Is that realistic? How does it make you feel? This is especially critical, I think, with projects that involve participation or outreach. There’s an (old) school of thought that artists should cover their own materials to make work, since they have the opportunity to show the work again and again…but you might not work that way. Consider projects that require you to make things to then be used (in a workshop, for example) or given away – who’s paying for that? Does the invitation come to you with generosity and care?  Consider: How did they reach out to you?  Did they take the time to introduce themself or are they already making assumptions? Did they do any research before reaching out? Did the person read up a bit about you and your practice? Does it seem like they spent some time considering your work before inviting you?  If not – this is likely a sign of what to expect from them going forward. (This is information to pay attention to.)

Is the invitation relevant to you and your practice? (Does it make sense that the invitation was sent to you or does it feel a bit off?) Feeling off is something important to pay attention to, and a good sign that maybe there are other things going on (maybe you’re just a way to help them check off a check box). See essays by: Joshua Vettivelu: When We Are Welcomed into the Fold, Where Do We Keep What Is Left behind? C Magazine: REFUSAL, vol. 133, Spring 2017. Vivek Shraya: How did the suffering of marginalized artists become so marketable?, NOW Magazine, May 2019.

Does the invitation feel like an opportunity?  A bit about opportunities: We’re often trained to think of every invitation as an opportunity—and a lot of the time, that might be true. Consider, though, that sometimes what seems like an opportunity might not entirely be one.

It helps to weigh the parts of an invitation that seem like an opportunity against the costs: For example: maybe you get a chance to show your work to a new audience – that’s important as an artist! But maybe it will cost you time, money, and energy that you just don’t have at that moment. Or, maybe you will have to concede to exhibition requirements that you don’t totally agree with – consider how much of an opportunity each invite actually is.  If it doesn’t feel like an opportunity:  Consider how you might turn it into one;  Or, use the energy you gain from saying ‘no’ to find a better opportunity instead! Recognize that opportunities can feel different for different people, and at different times: just because someone tells you it’s an opportunity doesn’t mean it actually is one for you. Additional things to consider: Do you know anyone who has worked with this person before? Ask around (people you trust) – gossip is valuable!  See essay by Hannah Black: Witch-hunt Tank Magazine, Issue 70, 2017.

If you keep coming up with ‘no’: Once you’ve given it some consideration, maybe you feel like you need to say no. I think it’s important to frame saying no as a need – sometimes, you just gotta say no! If so, you might consider how you will say no:

Consider the language you will use: especially if you feel the original invitation is somehow offensive (and want to make that clear with hopes that they don’t keep on sending inappropriate invitations to anyone else). (Friendly reminder: you do not owe them anything!)

If you want to say no gracefully (potentially leaving future doors open). try letting them know that although you’re interested, the project/timing/…whatever, just isn’t right for you right now. (Sometimes, especially if the person really wants to work with you – your graceful ‘no’ can turn back into a ‘yes’ after they revisit and adapt based on your needs.) Feel free to lie: you don’t owe people all of your reasons for saying no (especially if they’re personal): sometimes it’s just easier to say you don’t have time or capacity even if you actually do to help keep doors and potentials open.

Do you wanna just not respond? (Why waste your time and energy?) If you don’t think the invitation warrants a response – you can ignore the invite and go on with your day (you don’t owe them anything). This will send the message that you don’t want to work with them (presumably, that is your goal). But, keep in mind: that this type of response likely shuts the door on the potential to ever be invited by that person to work together again. But, keep in mind: that sometimes, the message received from not responding might not always land how you want it to. Some people are relentless and will keep contacting you until you’re forced to respond to get them to stop (which is basically just more time and energy on your part)
If you do decide to say no: do you know someone else who might be good for the invitation instead? Consider paying the invitation forward—maybe what doesn’t seem like an opportunity for you might be to another artist you know and care about.

 How a ‘no’ can be received: It’s important to note that people are often not great at accepting ‘no’ as a response. Since money and opportunity are often at the centre of invitations, there is often a power differential between the invitee and an artist; it puts artists in a tricky (read: annoying) position. Saying no to an invitation, however you end up saying it, should be read by the invitee as a firm decision.

You know your reasons for saying no and you don’t owe any further justifications to the person you’re saying no to. No means no. But, in my experience, there have been times when I have said no, it wasn’t accepted as a valid response, and the invitee has attempted to goad me into saying yes anyway. In these cases my only solution thus far has been to stop communicating with them. Stand by your no, you don’t owe anyone more than that. (This is also important information about the person to pay attention to.)