Dorothy Nesbit examines the complex relationship between being able to ask for support, but also knowing when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when someone asks you to do something.

Many people find it hard to make requests – be it for an increase in their budget, some practical support from their partner, or somebody’s time or opinion. And, being afraid to ask, we couch our request in the vaguest of language or seek to disguise it as something else – as a suggestion or as a command. We may even hesitate to say ‘yes’ when others willingly offer support. It seems we find it hard to receive.

Our relationship with giving can be very complex. How many of us find ourselves saying ‘yes’ to a request that we would rather say ‘no’ to, maybe even to a request nobody has actually made? In schools, one of the most striking examples of this is the time we give over and above our contracted hours, regardless of the impact on our effectiveness. How often – in this area as elsewhere in our lives – do we do things out of some vague sense that somebody (our boss, our colleagues, our parents or partners) may want us to? Giving also presents challenges.

Ricky Forde of the Gap Partnership, who trains senior executives to negotiate more successfully, highlights the importance of giving and receiving in this context: ‘Again and again the difference between successful and unsuccessful negotiations lie in giving and receiving. It is the difference between something of value that a leader can easily give away to another party in exchange for something of equal or greater value in return. This will only work if it is something of relatively low cost to the other party or something that they can do easily. And whilst in commerce you might be talking about a significant deal for a company, in politics you might be talking about peace in a war-torn area or even a longed-for apology’.

What makes the difference between the person who finds it difficult to give and receive and the – relatively rare – person who is able to give and receive easily and knows when to say ‘no’? Often the differences lie in the beliefs we hold: perhaps we believe that our needs cannot be met without putting others out or exhausting scarce resources. If this is our belief, we are likely to fear that our needs will not be met and maybe even that we will be judged as selfish and undeserving if we make requests or receive help. Is it any surprise that we hesitate to express our needs or to share our own ‘scarce’ resources?

If, on the other hand, we believe that our needs have equal status with the needs of others, and that everybody’s needs can be met, we are more likely to ask for the support we need and to give from a sense of abundance.In this case,we are likely to feel comfortable when others say ‘no’ to our request, believing that our needs can be met in another way. We are also likely both to be generous in the giving and to feel comfortable when we choose to say ‘no’. The power of this different belief lies not in its literal truth, but in the way it guides our behaviour and opens up new possibilities.

If you recognise that you have difficulty in giving or receiving, what first step might you take to make a difference? This may be to notice the thoughts and feelings that hold you back, to make a request you have been putting off or to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request that someone has made of you. Taking new actions can have a powerful effect in loosening the grip of old habits. Wherever you are starting from, every journey begins with a single step. What first step do you want to take? TEX

Professional Development

The following questions are designed to help you to understand your own attitudes to giving and receiving and perhaps to take steps towards a more fulfilling approach.

  • What requests have you made recently?
  • What help have you said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to?
  • What is the balance in your life between giving and receiving?
    Perhaps you are happy with the status quo. If not, what change would you like to make?
  • How would your life be different if you were able to achieve your giving and receiving goal? Take time to imagine how your life would be different if you were able to make the change you desire. What would you be doing differently and with what outcomes? What would you be seeing, hearing, and feeling differently?
  • How do your current beliefs support you in your giving and receiving? What beliefs do you hold about giving?
  • What beliefs do you hold about receiving?
  • How do the above support you in leading the life of your choosing?
  • What do your colleagues, friends and family notice about the ease with which you give and receive? What marks you out from others you know?
  • What adjustment can you make that will take you closer to your giving and receiving goal?

Dorothy Nesbit supports teachers, support staff, school managers and headteachers in liberating their own potential, so that they can achieve the levels of personal satisfaction needed to sustain effective performance, to inspire our young people, and to help students to prepare for their adult lives. Visit for more information.

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 11 Spring 2006