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

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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