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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Separation anxiety can come with a tail whip - not only does it swipe at kids, but it will so often feel brutal for their important adults too.

If your child struggle to separate at school, or if bedtimes tougher than you’d like them to be, or if ‘goodbye’ often come with tears or pleas to stay, or the ‘fun’ from activities or play dates get lost in the anxiety of being away from you, I hear you.

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Access to the recording will be available for 30 days from the date of purchase.

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The more we treat anxiety as a problem, or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it. 

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave. 

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big. 

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does - you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’♥️
I’ve loved working with @sccrcentre over the last 10 years. They do profoundly important work with families - keeping connections, reducing clinflict, building relationships - and they do it so incredibly well. @sccrcentre thank you for everything you do, and for letting me be a part of it. I love what you do and what you stand for. Your work over the last decade has been life-changing for so many. I know the next decade will be even more so.♥️

In their words …
Posted @withregram • @sccrcentre Over the next fortnight, as we prepare to mark our 10th anniversary (28 March), we want to re-share the great partners we’ve worked with over the past decade. We start today with Karen Young of Hey Sigmund.

Back in 2021, when we were still struggling with covid and lockdowns, Karen spoke as part of our online conference on ‘Strengthening the relationship between you & your teen’. It was a great talk and I’m delighted that you can still listen to it via the link in the bio.

Karen also blogged about our work for the Hey Sigmund website in 2018. ‘How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)’, which is still available to read - see link in bio.

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I often go into schools to talk to kids and teens about anxiety and big feelings. 

I always ask, ‘Who’s tried breathing through big feels and thinks it’s a load of rubbish?’ Most of them put their hand up. I put my hand up too, ‘Me too,’ I tell them, ‘I used to think the same as you. But now I know why it didn’t work, and what I needed to do to give me this powerful tool (and it’s so powerful!) that can calm anxiety, anger - all big feelings.’

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When the ‘feeling brain’ is upset, it drives short shallow breathing. This is instinctive. In the same ways we have to teach our bodies how to walk, ride a bike, talk, we also have to teach our brains how to breathe during big feelings. We do this by practising slow, strong breathing when we’re calm. 

We also have to make the ‘why’ clear. I talk about the ‘why’ for strong breathing in Hey Warrior, Dear You Love From Your Brain, and Ups and Downs. Our kids are hungry for the science, and they deserve the information that will make this all make sense. Breathing is like a lullaby for the amygdala - but only when it’s practised lots during calm.♥️
When it’s time to do brave, we can’t always be beside them, and we don’t need to be. What we can do is see them and help them feel us holding on, even in absence, while we also believe in their brave.♥️

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