How to Say “No”
No. It’s such a simple word. So short. So easy to spit out. And you say it all the time.
The problem isn’t saying the word itself, it’s who or what you have to say no to. There are people you find it easy to say no to, and people you don’t. Maybe it’s easy to say no to your coworkers, but hard to say no to your boss. Maybe it’s easy to say no to your kids, but harder with dear old dad. Maybe you can tell your neighbor no, but not your favorite charity. Or perhaps your experience is exactly the opposite of each of these scenarios.
When it’s hard to say no, how you say it matters. Here are three tips to keep in mind when you have a difficult “no” ahead:
Don’t beat around the bush, delay in giving an answer, or be vague. Don’t passive-aggressively list all the reasons saying yes would be a hardship in order to guilt trip the asker into rescinding. Avoid giving excuses, because people are great at “helping” you overcome obstacles. (“I’d love to come, but I don’t have childcare.” “Oh! No problem. Bring the kids!” Doh!) Own your choice. Say no, the actual word. Be clear. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
Your language needs to be clear and decisive, and your nonverbals need to match. Don’t lean to the side, rock back and forth on your feet, or curl inward. Stand straight and tall when you deliver your “no.” At the end of your statement, curl your voice downward. It is, after all, a statement—you are not asking for permission to decline. If your voice curls up at the end of your statement, it sounds like a question. Nothing invites increased pressure to say “yes” than a “no” delivered without conviction. Stand by your no, nonverbally.
You can still be polite when giving a firm, definitive no. Even if the request is over-the-top, you don’t have to get offended, criticize, or be rude. That makes it personal. Being cheerful demonstrates that it’s not personal. Usually, you can find something positive to focus on, even as you decline a request. For example, “Your event sounds great. I won’t be coming, but I hope it’s a grand success!” If you wish to, you can offer a sincere alternative or compromise: “I’m swamped this week, but if you still need help next week, try me again.” Make sure it’s not a fake excuse, a justification, or a defense. You don’t have to defend your decision. It’s your life. You have both the right and the responsibility to say no.
When you need to say no, these tips will help. But the real issue is why is it hard to say no in the first place? You can and do say no sometimes without any difficulty at all. When it’s hard to say no, it’s usually because of one of these two reasons:
1) Your values are in competition with each other. For example:
- You value spending time with friends AND you value having time alone to unplug on weekends.
- You value moving forward in your career AND you value maintaining a healthy marriage.
- You value community service AND you value being available for your nieces and nephews.
When you have to choose between two things you value, it can be hard to figure out which is more important right now.
2) Saying no doesn’t align with your sense of self. If saying no messes with your beliefs about yourself, your identity will win every time. Here are some beliefs that can get in the way:
- I am a hard worker.
- I am a helper.
- It’s my job to make people happy.
- I am a good mom/dad/employee/friend/citizen/etc.
You can probably come up with a million others.
In both cases, you need to know yourself. Do you know your values? When they butt up against each other, how do you prioritize them? Do you know how nuanced and expansive your character and personality are? Does your sense of self include “hard worker” and “someone who is willing to say ‘no’ to work sometimes”? You are much more complex than you realize. When you acknowledge that, when you take a long hard look at the many facets of who you are and what drives your life, you can say no clearly, confidently, and cheerfully.
Physically speaking, saying no is a piece of cake. You do it all the time. When it’s hard, assess where the underlying internal conflict is coming from. When you’re clear on who you are and what you stand for, giving a straight, authoritative, polite “no” automatically becomes easier.