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Be a connected diplomat

  • Writer's picturePhil McAuliffe

Can you ever say 'no'?

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Nancy Reagan had it right.

We just need to say no.

But can you ever say no?

I'm sure that I'm not alone when I say that I always want to do the best job that I can. I'm ambitious. I want to do the best I can for as many people in my time on this planet.

I’m calling it: My name's Phil and I am an ambitious chronic over-achiever who worked in a hyper-competitive environment, especially when it came to promotions and posting rounds. I desperately wanted to please others. I wanted to be that person who went the extra, extra mile (not just one extra mile) and make it look easy. I felt that if I didn’t say yes to requests to join special teams or other opportunities that my colleagues – my competition – would say yes. It's thrilling to be asked, isn't it? If I'm being asked, I must be worthy. If I wasn’t asked to be on any of these special teams, then I would be crushed and descend into a spiral of despair and comparison.

And that was just at work. At home, I wanted to be the perfect husband. The perfect father. The perfect me.

Sound familiar?

If you’re like me at work, we fear that we will be judged for our ‘no’. We fear that this will be a permanent mark against us. We fear that by saying no, we will never be posted or promoted again. Our value as a person is called into question.

This is messed up, isn't it? I got curious and found out why I responded like this. I am now armed with a powerful awareness. I can now respond with genuine and heartfelt congratulations at others' successes, knowing that there's more than enough success to go around. The awareness also helps me to observe what I see around me.

We ambitious chronic over-achievers - of which there are many in the world of diplomacy - can find it very difficult to say no. Saying no when you're a diplomat in a meeting with government representatives from other countries is closing down a dialogue. This is something to be avoided.

Indeed, in researching this post, I found this quote:

‘If a diplomat says yes, he[sic] means perhaps. If he[sic] says perhaps he[sic] means no. And if he[sic] says no, he’s[sic] the hell of a diplomat’ – Agnes Sligh Turnbull

This could not be more apt.

So we dance around the no. We know that, rather than saying an outright no, we say things like, 'that's worthy of further consideration at our next meeting', or 'That's a very interesting suggestion. I'll raise it with [insert name of our capital city]'.

We are so anti-no that we use noes called 'soft noes' and 'hard noes'. There are some comical discussions where the type of no is analysed after the meeting for its strength. A soft no leaves open the possibility for further discussion soon, a hard no leaves it open for discussion at a later stage. Neither is a real no.

Confused? I think we all are.

What's the problem?

Diplomats work in a tremendously competitive environment. It's extremely difficult to get a job in most country's foreign services, so the employing agency can choose from a host of over-achieving applicants.

The competition doesn't end once you've won your job. There's postings and promotions to get and your competition is generally other ambitious chronic over-achievers.

A diplomat - or an aspiring diplomat - will always want to say yes to any request to stretch themselves, do more than their colleagues, get themselves on to the latest taskforce, work a little longer each night or through the weekends. Any opportunity to show yourself to be sound and get noticed by the right people is to be seized.

We fear that saying no will take all those possibilities away.

Understanding FOMO

Kids today have got a word for this: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

If you haven't clicked on this link, I encourage you to do so after reading this post.

I simply add that FOMO in highly-competitive environments - like in our employing agencies - is real. [continued below]


For diplomats

In Australia, our employing agencies are going to great lengths to ensure that people can work as flexibly as possible. This is commendable. Part of this is that people are not disadvantaged in their careers for taking steps to balance their lives.

But there's a big difference between legislative and policy changes and cultural change. One does not automatically beget the other.

While senior leaders are both walking and talking the talk, prevailing attitudes can take time to change. As mid-career diplomats, we're likely responsible for approving our team members' flexible working proposals. We are happy to, but we also look to the volume of work we are still expected to do, the time we're expected to do it in and the people we have to do it and we can begin to think that a flexible working environment is not for us.

So we can continue to feel torn: Our needs versus those of the job. Logically, we know that we need to say no to some people and some things, because the cost of saying yes is too high. We say no for personal reasons, like having caring responsibilities for a child, children or an elderly parent.

While we are on posting, where we generally work in small teams, we are very aware that us saying no means others have no choice but to say yes. We are also aware that saying no means that we turn down the possibility of being noticed by important people back home.

Wherever we are, we can feel guilt for putting others out and tie ourselves up in knots over the 'what-ifs'. You know what I'm talking about. These are things like:

  • What if I've said no to the biggest opportunity of my career?

  • Will [insert person who said yes] get promoted ahead of me?

  • Will [insert name of important person that you said no to] think that I'm not a committed team-player?

  • Have I just blown my chances in the next posting round?

  • Am I only going to get the second-highest performance rating, instead of the highest?

Sometimes, these what-ifs are simply too much and we say yes to please others. We just find a way to make it happen.

But making it happen means that something else has to give, doesn't it? Home life suffers. Relationships with spouses, family and friends suffer. Time for yourself - if you had any - suffers.

The irony is that saying yes brings up the same number of what-ifs that saying no does.

This is by no means an experience unique to mid-career diplomats. Indeed, this is all too common in other professions. Primarily, and regrettably, it's an experience borne all too often by women.

But FOMO in hyper-competitive environments does not discriminate.

What are we to do?

As I said at the beginning, we need to be like Nancy Reagan and just say no. Easier said than done.

I know how difficult it is to say no to a boss who's job it is to negotiate trade deals between countries and get the other country to say yes. Many of us are trained to get to that yes. The spotlight during those kinds of discussions is an uncomfortable place to be when they're trying to find any way possible for you to say yes.

What if there's something more to this FOMO that make us so reluctant to say no and mean it? Why is no so hard to say and do?

Simply, we want to be all things to everybody all of the time. We want to be perfect. Us ambitious chronic over-achieving, perfectionist people-pleasers live in absolute fear of being judged by others and not measuring up to their standards.

We feel like we are lesser versions of ourselves when we feel like we've disappointed someone or don't get that promotion or posting. We have been judged and found wanting.

We feel shame.

To some of you, this may come as a surprise. To others, a statement of self-evident fact. But in writing further about perfectionism, Brown writes:

'Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment [sic] and shame. It's a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking that it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from taking flight'. (Brown, p 56.)


'Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused - How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused - What will they think?' (Brown, p 56.)

Who knew that our willingness to please others came from shame?

When I read this, it was like Dr Brown was speaking directly to me. I felt very uncomfortable. I tried to reason it away with thoughts like, 'Sure, for other people. But not for me. It has to be something else.'

Ponder this about people-pleasing: We adjust our own standards to meet the standards we imagine someone else has for us.

Heavy stuff, isn't it?


This week's challenge involves you channelling Nancy Reagan and just saying no.

But we know that it's never that easy.

You'll be paying attention to what's happening within you when you are asked to do something that will inconvenience you and those important to you. How do you feel? What's passing through your mind?

Who's asking you? A friend? A co-worker? Your boss? A family member?

Did you feel you could say no? If so, how confident was that no? Could you say no without worrying you'll miss out on something? Could you say no without worrying that someone will think less of you? Could you say no without worrying that you'll think less of yourself?

Thanks for reading!


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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.


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