Many of us hesitate to say no to others. With mindful tips like these, saying no is an emotionally intelligent skill anyone can master — really!
It’s just two letters, and yet saying no can feel really hard — even complicated. For many of us, saying no doesn’t just feel awkward. It feels wrong.
So, whenever anyone asks you to do almost anything, you might blurt out, “Yes! Sure! Of course! Happy to!”
But in reality, you may feel the opposite. Maybe you’d rather be doing about a thousand other things. Or maybe you’re OK with saying yes, but it’s not the best thing for your daily bandwidth or mental health.
Here’s the good news: Saying no is a skill you can sharpen. The more you say no, the more natural it’ll feel.
Here are several ways to build the skill of saying no in different situations — even if it feels like you’re doing it from the ground up.
For starters, it’s important to realize that if saying no is challenging for you, you’re not alone.
As social psychologist Dr. Vanessa K. Bohns writes in a 2016 research review examining people’s influence over others, “Many people agree to things — even things they would prefer not to do — simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’”
For example, a series of small studies, published in 2014, found that when asked, many people would acquiesce and commit unethical acts, such as telling a white lie or vandalizing a book — even when they felt these acts were perceived as wrong.
As social creatures who want to be part of the herd, we also want to preserve our relationships. So, we might blurt out yes because we don’t want to be seen as difficult, says Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa, an online mental fitness club.
Or, we don’t want to disappoint a good friend or hurt someone’s feelings, notes Dr. Nicole Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of Elocin Psychiatric Services.
Another reason yes pours out of us? Our past.
According to Anhalt, while growing up, you might’ve not learned to advocate for yourself.
“It’s also possible that you say yes because you deeply want to help. But you forget that your ability to accommodate others isn’t an endless well,” Anhalt says.
In other cases — like a work situation — we might worry that saying no says something about our ability to accomplish a certain task, adds Washington. Put another way, we think declining makes us look incompetent.
When you struggle with saying no in personal or professional situations, it helps to remember the self-preservation in passing things up.
“Saying no is one of the best forms of self-care we can engage in,” Washington says. She notes that saying no supports us in:
- creating space in our schedules to rest and recharge
- engaging in activities that actually align with our current goals
- setting boundaries with loved ones and colleagues
Ultimately, saying no gives us greater navigation over our lives, says Anhalt. This grants us the opportunity to build a fulfilling, meaningful life on our own terms.
After all, we can only have power over ourselves — so, let’s exercise that power.
Sometimes, we say yes because we don’t know what we want. Other times, we simply need to gather ourselves enough to speak up.
Either way, here’s your permission slip to start thinking about when it’s best for you to decline. To kick-start the discovery process, ask yourself these questions anytime you’re not positive about how to proceed:
- Will saying yes prevent me from focusing on something that’s more important?
- Does this potential project, opportunity, or activity align with my values, beliefs, and goals?
- What are my core values, beliefs, and current goals?
- Will saying yes make me even more tired or burnt out?
- Will saying yes be good for my mental health? Or will it worsen my symptoms?
- In the past, when have I said yes and then ended up regretting it?
- When am I more likely to accept a request I’d rather decline? How can I reduce these challenges?
Besides exploring the above questions, it can help to work with a therapist, if that’s available to you. According to Anhalt, “A therapist can help you identify both what you need and what blocks you from advocating for what you need.”
Here’s the other great thing about saying no: You can decline a request while still being kind, appreciative, and respectful. Below, you’ll find a simple, no-fuss framework for saying no, along with real-life examples.
Be crystal clear
A wishy-washy answer can make the conversation awkward and confuse the person making the request. They might think, “Do they want me to make other suggestions or accommodations?” or “Are they interested in the promotion but prefer to negotiate?”
Or, a flimsy no opens the door to difficult people bombarding you with their demands.
In short, “Be clear with your no, so that nobody is left wondering what you are trying to say,” encourages Washington.
Clear, kind ways to decline
- “Unfortunately, I’ll need to pass on this.”
- “I’m sorry, my friend, but I’m not able to.”
- “Sadly, I can’t.”
- “Thanks, but that’s not going to work for me.”
- “No, I’m not able to do that.”
Phrases to avoid
- “Umm, I don’t know.”
- “I’m not sure.”
- “It’s tough to say.”
- “Well, maybe I could do it. But…”
Extend genuine gratitude for the ask
You might have a hard time saying no because the request or person making the request means a lot to you. You’re sincerely grateful for being asked. So, naturally, you feel bad for saying no.
By all means, shower the other person with your appreciation, but still stand firm.
Expressing your gratitude
- “Thank you for thinking of me!”
- “I’m honored!”
- “I greatly appreciate you asking.”
- “You coming to me really means a lot.”
- “I’m immensely grateful.”
- “Rain check? Please don’t stop inviting me! I might be able to connect another time.”
Give a brief explanation — if you want to
“No” can be a complete sentence. Let that sink in.
But if you’d like to offer an explanation, keep it short and sweet, recommends Washington.
- “Thanks so much for the party invite! I won’t be able to make it because I’m taking the weekend to regroup after this hectic week. It looks like it’ll be a great event. Have an amazing time!”
- “I greatly appreciate this opportunity! Unfortunately, I’m booked all month long. Thanks, again, for asking.”
Offer an alternative
Sometimes, you’d like to say yes but the timing is off. Or there’s some other reason you can’t accept. But you’d like to in the future.
If that’s the case, Washington suggests offering an alternative that you’re comfortable with (and one that honors your needs).
- “I really appreciate you asking me to be on your podcast. I’m going to have to pass because I’m not doing any interviews while I write my book. However, please reach out to me in September.”
- “I’m honored you’d want me to be part of your project. Unfortunately, my schedule is currently full. If we can push back the due date a few weeks, I’d be happy to participate.”
- “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to bake my famous lasagna. But I’m happy to grab takeout!”
- “I’m really sorry you’re having such a hard time. I can’t stay over all weekend, but I’m free at the moment. How can I support you now?”
Offer another resource
“If you have the time, desire, and [connections], offer another person or resource that they might look into,” Anhalt says.
Sharing other recommendations means you’re still being helpful — which, for many people, is a core value.
- “Thank you so much for the invitation to speak at your event, it looks awesome! I’m not in a position to take on pro bono speaking engagements right now, so I’ll need to decline. Here are a few colleagues who might be interested.”
- “Hey, thanks for trusting me to help you move! Unfortunately, my knee is acting up again, but I personally know some college kids who’ve been asking for small jobs. I can put you in touch and contribute to the fund!”
In some cases, you’re just not sure what you’d like to do. Maybe it’s an amazing opportunity and you want to try to rework your schedule. Perhaps you’d like to help out a friend, but it’s a big ask.
Before you say no, figure out what you actually want. As Washington remarks, is it a true-blue, full-blown no? Or is it a not now?
For example, you don’t have the bandwidth for a fun work project right now, but you think you will next month.
Either way, you need time to think it through. So, take it.
Washington suggests considering the negative and positive consequences of accepting or declining a request.
As she notes, “taking a breath and a few minutes can allow you to be more thoughtful in your no and possibly prevent you from a knee-jerk yes”— or even a hasty no.
Saying no is hard for many people. So, we blurt out yes to requests we’d rather decline — and frequently end up regretting it.
“We often believe that we are protecting other people by saying yes when we want to say no,” Anhalt says. But being transparent about our feelings, needs, and limits leads to healthier, more authentic relationships, she says.
And saying no and honoring your feelings, needs, and limits also leads to a healthier you.
Thankfully, saying no is a skill anyone can build. The key is to keep practicing.