September 8, 2020

The Ultimate Guide to Saying No

“No,” is such a small word, yet it is one of the most powerful in the English language.

It punches way above its weight. Many of us struggle to articulate it at critical moments, even when we are screaming silently inside ourselves to say it.

Why does this small word hold so much power? 

Because “yes” is a positive, agreeable term, we often view “no” as a negative word, so we find it harder to express. But, like most things in life, it’s not that simple. Yes and no aren’t true opposites. They are two sides of the same coin. When you say yes to something, you are also saying no to every other option available to you. Similarly, by saying no to something, you create the opportunity to say yes to something else.

“Yes” and “no” are both direct, clear forms of communication. And when it comes to communication, clarity is a good thing. People like clarity, and saying “no” gives people clarity. It is empowering and more respectful and comprehensible than ambiguity. So, don’t think of “no” as an unfavourable term, or be afraid to say it.

Why it’s important to say no

As far as we know, until somebody invents a time machine, your time is a non-renewable resource. You can always make more money, make new friends, or buy more stuff. But you can’t make more time. This makes it one of your most precious resources. Maybe the most precious. 

No is the shield that helps you guard it. It is one of the ultimate life hacks. By saying no to things you don’t want to do, you can focus on what is important to you.

The world is full of temptations and distractions. Other people’s demands and priorities take us away from our own goals. Saying no to the things you don’t want to do is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself. It allows you to take control of your time and put your own priorities first.

Saying no isn’t just about getting out of things you don’t want to do. It is a crucial time-management skill. Achieving goals requires focus. And focus is mostly about saying no to things that take you away from your goals, no matter how much you would like to do them. Time is finite, remember. You can’t do everything.  

For instance, Steve Jobs once said he is as proud of what he hasn’t done as the things he has done. He had to turn down lots of great ideas and opportunities to focus on the iPod, the iPhone, the Macbook, and the other products that made Apple the powerhouse it is today.

Saying no is an act of taking control. If you don’t feel in control of your life, or some aspect of it, start by saying no more often.

This idea is summed up nicely by Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism:

“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”

Why we struggle to say no

There are many reasons why we may struggle to say no:

  • People pleasing. We feel we are disappointing someone when we say no to them.
  • Sense of obligation. We may sense an expectation that we will agree to something, which makes it hard to say no. 
  • Conflict avoidance. We think that saying no will create an uncomfortable situation that we would rather avoid.
  • FOMO. We fear we will miss out on something if we turn an offer down.
  • Saying “no” has a sense of finality about it. This underpins all the other reasons why we are reticent to say no. It is partly why the word seems so powerful. But “no” is not some magic we word that can’t be undone. We can usually change our mind after saying it.

These are all legitimate reasons for why saying no may sometimes be challenging. There are times when it will be right to say yes for these reasons, even though we want to say no. That’s okay, but it should not be our default position. If you’re always yielding to what other people want, when do you get to do what’s important to you?

When to say “No.”

There is no complicated process for knowing when to say yes or no. This is actually really simple:

Just listen to your gut and stay true to yourself.

Now, just because knowing when to say no is simple doesn’t mean that saying it is always easy. Sometimes the reasons listed above get in the way. This article aims to make it easier for you to act on your conviction when your gut says no.

Another way to determine when to say no is to have clear, pre-defined personal boundaries that can act as a set of rules you can follow. This will help you decide when to say yes or no in different situations and make you less likely to let your guard down and go against your gut.

You may need different strategies for saying no in various areas of your life. Let’s look at some factors that might influence the best way for you to say no in different scenarios.

How to say no

How you say no can make all the difference. A confident, friendly, polite no is unlikely to cause offence and will usually be respected. In contrast, a rambling, inconsistent, or combative no will have the opposite effect. 

The trick is to be assertive without being confrontational or disrespectful.

Here are some suggested approaches for giving clear, confident no’s.

Most difficult no’s are due to a lack of confidence. Understanding your reason for saying no will help you to be more confident. Reflect on why your gut is telling you to say no, or be guided by your boundaries to reach your answer. Once you clearly understand your reasons for saying no, you will find it easier to be respectfully assertive.

When declining an offer, avoid the temptation to give a reason. Justifying your decision will undermine your confidence. And smart or manipulative people can use your reason to start negotiating and persuade you out of your position. 

If you’re not interested, just say it’s not your thing. To prevent such a short, direct no from being too blunt, don’t ignore what is being asked of you. Acknowledge it before saying no, but don’t yield to it.

Byron Katie suggests you phrase this simple kind of no by saying, “Thank you, and no.” This should work in most scenarios. She stresses that this exact phrasing should be used and that you should never say “Thank you, but no,” which can be perceived as rude or passive-aggressive.

The important thing is to give a clear no and leave it at that. If you must justify your position, provide a single, clear reason. More than one seems like you are making excuses, which is less convincing. 

If someone gives you a hard time for saying no, don’t feel bad. Remember, saying no is not a hostile act. You are just respecting your personal boundaries. Another suggestion from Byron Katie; if someone accuses you of being selfish, you can say, “you might be right about that, but still no.”

When you are pressured into saying yes to someone’s requests or demands, you are living life on their terms. When you deflect that pressure by saying no, you are living it on your terms. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Get out of the moment

Sometimes, we can get put on the spot and fail to say no due to the pressure of the moment. Here are three ways to take yourself out of the moment and counter that tendency:

When you feel pressured into saying yes, pause, and quickly run through this exercise in your head before committing to an answer: Fast-forward to the future and look back on your life. What things that you did will you be happy about? What will you wish you had spent less time on? If you are about to unwillingly say yes to something that won’t contribute to your happiness, it’s best to say no.

Remember your personal boundaries. By following the rules set by them, you won’t have to decide anything in the heat of the moment. Your decision was made back when you settled on your boundaries. Saying no is just the act of expressing that decision.  

To avoid being pressured into snap decisions, have a policy that if someone wants an answer on the spot, your default is “no.” Tell them that if they give you a reasonable amount of time to make an informed decision, you may have a different answer later. This is a great way to get overbearing or unreasonable people to back off and create the space for you to make a decision you are comfortable with.

If you struggle with saying the word “No.”

Sometimes the only thing stopping us from saying no is our discomfort with the word itself. If this is the case, think about other times when you felt uncomfortable or nervous; job interviews, first dates, public speaking, etc. When it came to crunch time, I bet none of them were as bad as you feared (except maybe the odd first date). 

Saying no works the same way. The reality is not as bad as you think it will be. While the first few times may be rough, it gets easier the more you do it, like anything in life. Accept the short-term discomfort so you can benefit from the long-term gain of being comfortable saying no. Because good things happen when you step outside of your comfort zone.

To make the idea of giving people a hard no less daunting, dedicate a week to trying it as an experiment. Knowing you are only committed to saying no for a few days should make it easier for you to adopt the habit. By the end of the week, chances are you will be comfortable enough to stick with it.

Another option is to use a rephrasing strategy. There are many ways to say no without saying, “No.” Try these, or variations of them that sound natural for you, on for size:

“Thank you. That’s not right for me just now.”

“Thank you. It’s not something I can commit to right now.”

“That sounds great, but I’m really focused on x right now, and this wouldn’t be right for me.”

“Thank you. I don’t eat dessert/drink during the week/agree to anything without sleeping on it.”

“Thanks for asking. Let me check my diary/confirm when x is happening and get back to you.”

This may seem counter to what I was saying about avoiding explanations, but we need to walk before we can run. The underlying principle of clear, direct communication is still evident with these phrases. They work because they allow you to commit to a position and express it clearly. But at some point, you have to put your big boy/girl pants on and start to give more direct no’s.

If you opt for rephrasing to avoid using the word no, there are three things to be mindful of.

First, Don’t say, “I can’t…” This creates a limiting belief that will make you feel powerless and prevent you from seeing saying no as a positive act. Instead, say “I don’t…” which frames your decision as a choice you are making, rather than an imposition. This is much healthier, as it empowers you with a sense of agency and control.

Second, don’t be tempted to use “maybe” or some other vague answer to avoid committing to a no (or a yes). People like clarity, which a “maybe” doesn’t give them. It comes off as evasive, or fickle, like you are holding out for a better offer from someone else. To reiterate my earlier point, an assertive, respectful “no” is a positive act. People would rather hear a no than a maybe.

Finally, be polite. Thanking someone for thinking of you or inviting you goes a long way to soften even the hardest of no’s.

If you are a people pleaser

People pleasers find it hard to say no because they don’t want to disappoint someone or hurt their feelings. Don’t say yes if you know you’re not going to follow through on it. This disappoints people far more than saying no upfront. 

You might think you’re being nice by saying yes, but doing so when you don’t mean it is disingenuous and inauthentic. This is why saying no is a positive act. It manages people’s expectations and keeps your relationship genuine. 

Don’t be unresponsive and ghost people to avoid saying no. Especially if you have said you will get back to them. Saying no is more respectful than cowardly ghosting. It builds trust because it creates clarity and promotes honesty. It makes you more reliable, and your yeses, when you say them, are more meaningful.

Say you have another commitment if this will help you to say no more confidently. Not having something concrete in your diary doesn’t make this a lie. Your commitment might be to give yourself space or to focus on something important to you (even if that is a quiet night at home doing nothing in the name of self-care). 

Leave the commitment unspoken if it could be perceived as an insult. This also prevents the other party from manipulating you out of your position rather than accepting your answer. If you experience any pushback, say it is a personal commitment. People usually take the hint and stop probing once you say something is personal.

People pleasers should practice the techniques for getting out of the moment listed above. Then, once you have created space for yourself, use it to decline their offer. Remember, saying no isn’t a rejection. It’s a form of boundary setting and taking control of your life. 

At work

Saying no in your professional life can be tricky. But working for someone doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything they ask of you. Just be prepared to qualify your no‘s to your boss or colleagues in the name of professional etiquette. 

If your boss loves to pile on the work requests and asks too much of you within a given period, you need a way to push back without seeming difficult. The trick is to frame your no as if you are helping them. Say “I have already blocked out that time to do x, and I can’t complete both tasks in the agreed time. Which one would you like me to prioritise?” 

This allows you to assert your boundary without being confrontational. You put the ball in their court and let them make the decision. This gives them power without reducing your own, and helpfully manages their expectations. It may also help them reassess what is realistic and be more mindful of what they ask of you in the future, which deals with the problem long-term.

A variation of this approach can work with your colleagues. If someone has a habit of adding extra tasks to projects once they are underway, let them know they need to cut something from the plan to accommodate their new request. Alternatively, they need to agree to a later delivery date for the project. Most additional requests happen because someone didn’t adequately scope out the project initially, so working out how to deliver it on time should be their problem, not yours. 

Successful people management is all about having clear communication and firm boundaries without taking away people’s power. That’s why these approaches work with bosses and colleagues. You are clearly and respectfully communicating your boundaries and managing their expectations while allowing them to choose the best way forward. In doing so, you come across as helpful and supportive rather than challenging.

An alternative tactic that can work when you don’t feel your input is needed or something isn’t a good use of your time is to use flattery. Meet with a team in the early stages of a project and say to them, “You guys are nailing this. I’m going to step out of your way so you can run with it.” Be careful not to be dismissive or seem disinterested when taking this approach; it can make people feel demeaned, which is the opposite of what you want. Make sure your delivery is supportive and respectful so that people feel valued.

If you’re a freelancer, the best way to avoid accommodating — or saying no to — unrealistic additional requests is to set clear project boundaries and write them into the contract and/or brief. Include charges for work that falls outside of the agreed project scope. That way, if any last-minute requests are made, you can say they fall outside of the contract, where your terms for taking on extra work are clearly stated. 

Your client can then make an informed choice. You don’t have to say no to them; the ball is in their court. This is an example of how pre-defined boundaries can work as an algorithm that helps you avoid making on-the-spot decisions and prevents others from feeling powerless.

Another good algorithm for freelance negotiation is the pick any two principle. You negotiate terms based on three factors:

  • Quality of service
  • Speed of delivery
  • Price

Your client can have any two of these but not all three. They want something fast and expect it to be good? Charge a premium. If they want it good and cheap, they can’t expect you to prioritise their job above other projects, so they won’t get it quick. They want it fast and cheap? Okay, but they shouldn’t expect it to be exceptional. 

Again, this is a way of creating boundaries that still gives the other party control. They can decide the best way forward based on their priorities. 

General principles and takeaways

Here are some general things to consider when deciding when and how to say no. They are useful when your gut isn’t giving you a strong signal one way or another, or you are unsure how to navigate the situation.

Clarify your long-term goals. If something doesn’t contribute to them, you should probably say no. If something directly opposes them, definitely say no.

Make specific commitments to yourself. Write them down so that they become tangible and defined. We often find it hard to say no to offers because they are time-specific, and FOMO takes over. We think we can catch up on our goals later, but that rarely happens. Time is a non-renewable resource, remember. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

By committing ourselves to deadlines or a certain number of hours per week for our personal goals, they become time-specific and non-negotiable, so we stick to them. Writing them down makes it harder to lie to ourselves about whether we are staying true to our commitments. 

Saying no doesn’t have to be final and forever. You can almost always change your mind and say yes later. 

Don’t let someone pressure you into making a decision you aren’t comfortable with. Have a policy that if someone wants an on the spot answer, your default is “no.” 

Except for the things you really want to do or that you know are good for you, your default position to most offers that come your way should be no. Defaulting to yes without thinking things through often leads to being overcommitted and stressed.  

Saying no is a way of asserting control and living life on your own terms, rather than someone else’s. It is a positive, empowering act that shows respect to yourself and others.

To decide when to say no, listen to your gut. Only say yes when doing so aligns with your intentions.

The best way to say no is clearly, confidently, and directly, without making excuses. Understanding your personal boundaries will give you the confidence to say no. 

Successful people management is all about having clear communication and firm boundaries without taking away people’s power. In a professional environment, presenting people with options for the best way forward empowers them and makes you seem supportive, making it hard for them to resent your position. 

Saying no positively means saying no assertively, respectfully, and politely. Try out the methods in this article. With a little practice, you should become increasingly comfortable with saying no in different situations. Not only that, by saying no more often, you will also take control of the precious resource that is your time so you can focus on what matters most to you.