Learning How to Say "No" - 5 Simple Ways to Saying What You Really Mean

Learning how to say a very simple “No” is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m definitely a people pleaser. I can’t help myself sometimes - I’m pretty sure it’s in my DNA to want to help others, even if it means sacrificing my own personal time and space.

However, there comes a time when saying “no” is a necessity. How many times have you felt guilted into doing something you weren’t really interested in? Staying late at work? Saying the “right thing” to appease a friend? At some point, we’ve likely all been there. These types of responses, however, take a toll on our emotions. Saying “yes” when we really mean “no,” is not only stressful, it’s also degrading to your emotional and mental health. Any time that we find ourselves doing something that we feel beholden to do, it weighs on our subconscious.

Saying “no” is definitely a struggle for me to this day, but I’ve found that using these 7 tips help me to be successful. While these might not be a definitive list for everyone, they’re a good starting place to encourage you to feel more powerful when saying “no” for the first time!

Set your boundaries!

Saying no is all about setting your boundaries. People react to you based on the responses that you give them. Based on your answers to my questions, I can gauge you interest in something, likes, dislikes, or general attitude. Contrary to popular belief (or at least, what we hope to believe), most people don’t catch on to subtle hints or gestures when communicating. This is especially true in the era of texting, emailing, and otherwise non-confrontational communication. Therefore, many passive responses and answers are taken literally. Consider this exchange sent over email or text message:

Boss: “Can you work late Friday night?”

You: “Ummm..I suppose I could, but I have to pick up my child from school.”

Boss: “Great. Thanks for helping out.”

Now, consider the difference in this exchange if you were sitting in front of your boss. Even by repeating the exact same lines as before, the face-to-face communication might go dramatically different if your boss could see your reluctance in wanting to stay later. But, why do we even want to leave this to chance? Instead of hoping that your boss will read your subtle cues, set your boundaries. Be firm and clear. Consider this exchange:

Boss: “Can you work late Friday night?”

You: “No. I need to pick up my child from school.”

Boss: “Ok, I’ll see if [other employee] can help out.”

By responding in a declarative statement, you’ve set boundaries in this discussion.

You don't have to explain why.

The above statement is an easy example of times when we feel that it’s okay to say no. For example, you have a conflict. That’s an easy out, an easy excuse. It’s much easier to say “no” when you can simply explain away your “no” statement.

“No, I can’t because…”

“No, I have to do…”

Why is this so much easier? Giving a reason along with a “no” statement allows us to provide some validation behind the statement. It comes from a few reasons. One of these reasons could be a fear of confrontation. If I provide an explanation about my statement, there’s no source of conflict. I just simply cannot. For most people, this reasoning is enough to avoid any residual conflict. But, if fear of confrontation is an issue for you, how do you feel when you’re repeatedly asked again? For example, if you give your boss an excuse (“I have to pick up my child.”) and your boss comes back with an alternative suggestion (“Could your spouse pick the child up?”), what do you do? Are you likely to give in? This goes back to my original point of setting your boundaries. You have already stated your decision, it’s now time to be firm to it.

Another common reason that people feel the need to explain their “no” is a sense of guilt. While picking up your child may be a factual statement, many of us are frequently left wondering if, by saying yes, we would have more positive outcomes. Consider it a “the grass is greener” statement. If I would have stayed at work later on that Friday, would I have gotten promoted sooner? It’s hard to tell. But, saying yes because you simply feel guilty for otherwise setting your boundaries is not an acceptable action. By doing so, you lose value in yourself at the risk of others.

Your value is over others.

How can you be good to others if you're not good to yourself? Many people feel as though acknowledging their own personal wellbeing as important is selfish. However, consider what is more selfish. The co-worker who takes advantage of your willingness to do their share of the responsibilities? The boss who encourages you to stay late working without any thought of a future promotion? Ultimately, for you to put out your best work (to continue with my workplace theme), you have to be able to put your best self forward. Likely, your best self is not over-worked and exhausted.

If the reason that you felt compelled to say “yes” stems from guilt and the undervaluation of your self worth, consider the implications of your decision or, the ripple effect. This is not the first time that you’ve stayed late at work. Your wife, tired and deprived of daily adult human contact, is fed up with your inability to coparent. She says that she is leaving you and filing for divorce. You come home to an empty house. In her haste to leave you, she leaves the oven on from the dinner that she was cooking for the family. The house burns down, but somehow you escape unscathed. You show up Monday morning to work, in charred clothes, smelling vaguely like alcohol. Your boss decides that he’s had enough of your excuses and fires you on the spot.

While overly dramatic, all of these actions stemmed from the weight you assigned your value. Remember: It’s not selfish to set boundaries and place your value over others.

You can't please them all. (SO Stop Trying!)

This, in many ways, goes back to my original point of conflict avoidance. It’s human nature to want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. Rarely do people walk around completely devoid of empathy for their fellow man. However, if you’ve caught on to the theme of this blog post so far, you’ll realize that valuing yourself might come at the risk of a little conflict. But here’s the thing: Saying yes because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings is also worse than saying no. It’s inauthentic. You’re phoning it in. And even worse, it could lead to resentment down the road.

And here’s the clincher about friendships or relationships. If the person that you are saying “no” to changes their perception of you, then they weren’t a very good friend. Sometimes, that’s hard to hear. But, let that sink in. If a friend becomes angry with you or distant because you said “no,” are they truly a good friend? It’s more likely that they were looking for someone to act as a “yes-man” or, in a dysfunctional way, to be take advantage of. While we may not see that outwardly, these people are best left out of our lives.

"Focus is about saying no." - Steve Jobs

Even though I just quoted Steve Jobs, I’d like to refer back to my original favorite quote, from Ron Swanson: “Don’t half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” You cannot, will not, and do not do anything well when you’re stretched too thin. This goes beyond the workplace, too! This includes the joy that you receive from personal life experiences, time with family, and your own personal self-care.

If you want to be good at anything, you have to prioritize. Each day, we wake up with a limited amount of resources. That could be money, energy, or even attention span. Each time we give in to something that we’re unenthused about, it takes a bit away. At some point, you’ll find yourself empty. And you don’t want to waste it on the things that don’t matter! Don't stress yourself out by making commitments that you don't want to honor. 

How do you deal with saying no? Leave your tips and comments below!


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Learning How to Say No