Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Say ‘No’. (When it doesn’t feel easy.)

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For such a small word, ‘no’ has an awful lot of grip when it comes to sliding off the tongue. It’s one of the first words we learn but one of the hardest to master.

Even the strongest of humans can find themselves saying ‘yes’, when they actually want to say ‘no’. When this happens too often, it can fuel feelings of resentment and regret, as well as a sense of being too available, too stretched, or too firmly stuck in the passenger seat. Becoming better at saying ‘no’ might be easier said than done – but it can be done. It might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, and that’s okay. At the end of the awkward and uncomfortable will be a greater sense of empowerment, richer relationships and a clearer idea of what you need and why you deserve it. 

Why We Need to Say ‘No’ More Often

  1. We can only do so much. None of us are superheroes and even they have their limits. The things that matter the most won’t always clamor for priority. Saying no to the unimportant things gives the important ones the priority they deserve.
  2. If we don’t say no when we need to, other people’s needs will be given more priority than our own.
  3. Eventually, we will stretch too far and disappoint someone by delivering less than promised.
  4. Overcommitting runs the risk that we’ll end up with the reputation of being ‘nice’ – but unreliable.

Why We Don’t Say ‘No’ Enough

Before ‘no’ can find a more permanent home in our vocab, it will help to understand why we don’t say it enough. Here are some common reasons:

  1. Because we think we can. We overestimate our time and capacity and underestimate the other demands on our resources.
  2. Because we want to help. We’re nice like that.
  3. To preserve the relationship. Saying ‘no’ might end a friendship that depends on putting our own needs second all the time – which might be a friendship to stop fighting for. 
  4. Fear that rejecting the request might come across as rejecting the person.
  5. The person asking might get upset. We say ‘yes’ because we don’t trust that the person who has made the request will cope with ‘no’. 
  6. To keep our options open. Who knows what doors might close when we say ‘no’. More often than not though, it’s the door to sleeplessness, stress and chaos. 

How to Say ‘No’. (Without the world falling fairly off its axis.) 

  1. Know the clues. Often even before you’ve spoken the word you have a clue that you’d rather be saying ‘no’ ,but ‘yes’ jumps out instead. Know the signs – a tinge of anxiety, that sinking feeling, that faint voice inside you that knows everything that’s good for you except how to make you listen to it.
  2. Try ‘Can I get back to you?’ or ‘I need to check – I’ll let you know.’ This slows the interaction down and gives you time to consider your response. The thought of saying no can cause anxiety in itself, so the temptation is to say ‘yes’ to get rid of the discomfort. If you don’t have to give a response straight away then don’t. Give yourself time to actually believe that you’ll be okay to say ‘no’. Because you will be. Make sure you come back quickly with your answer – the issue won’t go away. If someone has asked for your help they aren’t suddenly going to forget about it. A quick, gentle, generous ‘no’ is always so much better for the relationship than no response at all.
  3. Are you saying ‘yes’ because you don’t want to hurt the person asking? Trust their capacity to cope with ‘no’. They’ll be fine and they deserve your confidence. 
  4. Make it clear you’re saying no to the request, not to the person. ‘I’d really love to help you but I can’t. I’m strapped this week. Let me know next time you need a hand though and I’ll help out if I can,’ or ‘I’d love to help you out but I’ve already committed to … Let me know next time you need a hand.’ If you want to, share what’s keeping you busy but don’t over-explain. You don’t owe anybody an explanation but for the person asking, hearing something after ‘no’ tends to feel less jarring than a straight-out ‘no’. 
  5. If you can’t say ‘yes’ to the request, is there something less intrusive you can do to show you care? ‘I can’t meet for lunch next Tuesday but how about we organize something in a couple of weeks,’ or ‘I’d love to help you out but I have so much on. I wouldn’t be able to give you what you need. I’d love to meet up with you in a couple of weeks though so you can tell me about it.’

If you’re used to saying ‘yes’, saying ‘no’ will almost certainly feel awkward. Accept the discomfort for what it is – the normal response to something new you’re trying, rather than what it isn’t – a stop sign. 

Saying no gets easier with practice and with the realisation that people won’t hate you for it. Relationships won’t be damaged and the world will keep spinning, just as it always has. Your ‘no’ won’t make any difference to that. And if anyone gets upset because of your kind, generous, articulate ‘no’, chances are he or she was probably added baggage that you’d rather not pay for. Always good to know.

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