I get asked for advice on how to say no all the time and I realised I hadn’t actually written a blog about it! So, here we are.
Do you ever think “no, no, no, no, no “ and then hear the word “yes” slip out of your mouth?
Or, do you say yes, and then spend ages feeling resentful and annoyed?
Do all your yes’s lead to you becoming completely overwhelmed and overloaded?
Saying no can be really hard.
Why is it hard to say no?
When most of us were children, we were taught that being agreeable and compliant was the right thing to do. Many of us also learned that serving others is admirable and perhaps the morally right thing to do. We were taught to say yes.
While this helps us avoid getting in trouble as children, if we use it indiscriminately as adults, it can cause us some difficulties. We end up saying yes to things we don’t agree with, don’t want to do, or really can’t manage.
Some of the most common reasons we don’t like saying no are that we think it will mean that we:
- Are rude, selfish, unkind, uncooperative, or a bad person.
- Will upset or disappoint someone, or make them mad.
- Will let someone down.
- Won’t be liked.
- Will be rejected.
We’re worried about what others will think about us (fear of being judged). Or, we think badly of ourselves for saying no.
Our inner critic is often very vocal when we have a decision to make. She’s scared. She doesn’t want you to feel any emotional or relational pain. Instead, she wants to keep you safe, and if saying yes is the best way to do that, she’ll say anything to make that happen. For example, “they’ll hate you if you say no”, “if you don’t help them, you’re a terrible friend”, or “it would be really selfish to say no”.
The important thing here, lovely, is that your self worth isn’t based on how much you do for others. You can be a kind and loving person and still say no. You can love others and care about their needs and still say no.
Sometimes we need to say no
When we say yes to something, we’re saying no to something else, because we only have finite time, attention and energy to allocate.
What are you saying no to, when you say yes?
You don’t have to do everything and it’s not your job to keep everyone happy all the time.
Saying no is about having clear personal boundaries. With boundaries, you take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and actions and also don’t take responsibility for the thoughts, feelings and actions of others (which are their responsibility!). This helps you to protect your valued relationships and spend less time feeling angry or resentful.
Everyone has the right to say no to things that don’t work for them. You can’t rely on others to know and take care of your needs (although some people will absolutely want to help you with this!). You need to put boundaries in place for that reason.
The other person’s response is their responsibility. You might be surprised that in many cases, people will accept and understand your no, and even respect you for saying it. And if they don’t, that’s ok. It’s their responsibility to manage their response to your boundary.
Is there something you need to say no to?
Consider these questions (you can use these as journal prompts too!):
- Where would it feel freeing to say no?
- What’s making me feel resentful, frustrated, low, anxious or stressed at the moment?
- What am I doing that’s not important or a priority to me?
- What am I afraid to say no to?
Checking in with your body
If you struggle to know when to say no, you might like to try checking in with your body before you commit to something. It’s a wonderful strategy that I use personally and teach my clients. When you have a decision to make, focus on the decision and notice how your body feels.
Our bodies are always giving us clues. Our bodies know what’s best for us. Even when our minds are confused or conflicted.
When something is a no for you, you’ll probably feel some sort of contraction or discomfort in your body. Perhaps in your chest or throat. You may feel your breathing become more shallow. I also sometimes feel aching in my legs. As a comparison, a yes is likely to feel more expansive and relaxed in your body.
How to say no
Now, let’s get down to the specific approach you can use to say no. These principles will help you deliver your message with kindness and respect:
- Be clear and direct – Avoid phrases like “maybe not this time”, “I don’t think so”.
- Don’t feel you have to apologise. You haven’t done anything wrong.
- Provide a brief reason for declining. Keep it simple. A brief reason can soften your delivery but don’t feel that you need to give extensive details.
- Tell the truth – If you lie, you’ll probably feel guilty and this is all about being true to yourself and your needs.
- Offer an alternative – Such as another time you can help them, another way of fixing their problem, a different type of help you can provide, another person who might be able to help them.
- Give yourself time to think if you are likely to panic in the moment or say yes too quickly. For example, “let me check my calendar”, “I’ll have to double check if that’s possible”, “let me check with my husband”, “I need to think about that, I’ll let you know”.
- If they ask again, you stick to your no. Smile and say it again.
The actual words…
Here are some specific phrases you can use, or customise to your own language:
- I don’t want to
- I need time to think about whether I can manage this, I’ll get back to you tomorrow.
- Thanks so much for asking me. I can’t help you this time.
- I can’t commit to that right now
- At this stage, I’m going to say no but I’ll let you know if anything changes.
- I’m really honoured that you asked me, but I have to say no.
- I can’t do that, but here’s what I can do.
- Under different circumstances I’d love to, but right now I can’t.
- Not today thanks.
- I know this is important to you, perhaps you can ask …… to help you.
- I’d rather not. Thanks for asking!
- I wish I could, but I’m swamped this week.
- I know you’d really like me to do that, but unfortunately at this stage I can’t.
- Thanks for asking me! I’m not the best person to help you with this. Why don’t you ask ……
- I’m already doing ……. and I’d love to do this, but I can’t manage both. Which is most important to you?
To give yourself the best chance of success, consider practicing some of these with a trusted friend. With practice, saying no will feel easier and come more naturally.
So, lovely, what do you need to say no to this week?
Choose 1 thing and decide how you are going to deliver your message.
If there’s nothing right now, find 2 ways you can say no in future, that would feel manageable for you. Practice those so you are ready for the next situation!