It’s just a two-letter word, so why are we so afraid of it?
Saying “no” feels so uncomfortable for so many of us.
We can be scared to speak up for fear of upsetting others. We worry that hearing no feels like rejection.
But for the sake of your well-being, it’s important to get used to saying no, without the guilt.
1) Have some polite go-to phrases to pull out when you need them
When we’re put on the spot, we’re far more likely to agree to something we regret.
So my first practical and oh-so-simple tip is to have a few polite ‘no’s’ already at hand.
It’s a good idea to put your own personal slant on them so that they sound like you.
But here are a few examples to get you started:
- “Thanks for the invitation, I’m grateful that you thought of me. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it this time.”
- “I’m flattered by your interest/offer and I wish you all the best, but no thank you.”
- “Unfortunately, that isn’t going to work for me, so it’s going to have to be a no.”
- “At this time, I’m afraid I’m going to have to say no to that.”
- “I would have loved to, but I’m just too busy right now.”
- “Sadly, that doesn’t fit my schedule, I hope you understand.”
- “I’m really stretched right now, so I will need to say no.”
- “The timing isn’t good for me, but please do keep me in mind for next time.”
- “Right now I need to save money so I can’t make it.”
- “I don’t think I’m the right person to help with this, but good luck with it.”
- “I was really pleased I could help you out last time, but I won’t be able to this time.”
What you say will obviously depend on the situation, but certain stock phrases will always come in handy:
- “I appreciate the offer.”
- “Thank you for thinking of me.”
- “Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”
- “I’m going to pass this time.”
- “Unfortunately, now isn’t a good time for me.”
- “Maybe next time.”
Ok, so that’s the polite “no” part covered, but how can we all feel less guilty about it?
For starters, we need to learn to take it less personally…
2) Say no to the thing that’s being asked of you, and not the person
This one comes down to mindset.
But it’s an important mental framework to adopt when you need to say no to something.
Because one of the reasons we find ‘no’ so difficult to say is that it feels very personal.
It feels like we are saying no to the person and not the invitation, task, event, or occasion.
When in reality the two are very separate.
You can say yes to your friend but no to that drinks party they invited you to.
You can say no to the extra work you’re being asked to take on at work, and not to the colleague asking it of you.
Even the language you use can help you to be more mindful of the difference.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to say no to this”. “This” isn’t a person — this is a thing.
Remind yourself that it is not personal, you are not rejecting someone. And make sure that’s conveyed in the language you use when you deliver your no.
For example: “You seem like a great guy, but I’m afraid I’m going to say no to the offer of a date”.
3) Offer a brief reason when it’s appropriate but don’t be tempted to over-explain yourself
I’ve heard it said plenty of times that “no” is a complete sentence.
Yeah, maybe it is. But I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification.
Because in the real world, most of us do care about the feelings of others and how we are perceived.
I suspect the thought of literally replying with just a curt “no” makes most of us cringe.
That’s why a brief reason for why you’re saying no can be appropriate and soften the blow.
For example, perhaps you can’t make it to your friend’s birthday weekend away.
Explaining that you can’t afford it, it clashes with another commitment, or that you are too busy is a good idea.
But you don’t always have to offer a reason. Neither do you have to undermine your decision by overexplaining or over-apologizing.
If you are long and rambling in your explanation, it will come across as a weaker or less certain no.
In short: don’t beat around the bush in delivering your no.
You don’t want to signal to the receiver that they can try to negotiate or get you to change your mind.
Instead, you want to make sure your no is clear and concise so that it appears firm. One short sentence is usually enough.
Of course, if the thought of saying no truly terrifies you. You don’t have to say it straight away.
Let me explain…
4) Say maybe or that you need to think about it first
Ok, so technically it’s not an immediate “no”.
But learning to make decisions more slowly and mindfully can be a really good gateway to feeling more comfortable with telling people no.
It also buys you some time and space if you have the people-pleasing habit of automatically saying yes.
Here’s why it works so well:
- It feels easier than turning someone down straight out
- It shows the other person that you have given their request some thought
- It buys you time to consider what you do and don’t want to say yes to
Here’s the thing:
When you quickly jump to a yes, you lock yourself into something you may later regret.
But we all know that mustering up the courage to tell people no flat out can feel mighty awkward.
Saying something along the lines of:
“Let me give that some thought, and I’ll get back to you” can always be followed up later with you declining their request.
At least the person you have to say no to will know you gave it consideration when you finally do say:
“After thinking about it, sadly I’m going to have to say no this time, but thanks anyway”.
5) Remember that practice makes perfect
When we’re not used to something, it’s bound to feel more awkward at first.
The same goes for learning to say no.
Even with all the tips and tricks in the world, getting used to giving polite no’s can still feel uncomfortable.
The key is to push through that and stay resolute. Make a commitment to yourself. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
You can rehearse the no’s that make you feel most uncomfortable. Know what you will say and practice in front of a mirror beforehand.
In the meantime, get more comfortable with saying no by practicing in as many low-risk scenarios as possible.
For example, the situations where you feel a little bit more comfortable in turning someone down.
There are usually two groups of people that we find it easiest to say no to:
- The people who are closest to us, like partners and kids, etc.
- The people who are very distanced from us, like that call center worker who rings up to sell you double glazing.
6) Know yourself and what’s most important to you
Here’s the bottom line:
The better you know yourself, the easier it is to honor your own needs and wants — and enforce boundaries around that.
In practical terms that means getting to grips with your own life priorities.
The more you are crystal clear on the things you want to invest your time and energy into, the easier it is to avoid the things you don’t.
Essentially when we struggle to turn people down we end up being pulled into doing a whole load of things that matter very little (or not at all) to us.
Because we feel obligated to prioritize someone else’s priorities above our own!
Get to grips with your priorities. Know that your time, energy, and money are limited resources.
This can help you to stay strong when someone asks you to invest any of these into something you do not value.
When you say no to something, consider why you are saying no. Remind yourself of your reasons.
For example, You don’t want to take on more work, because your family time means more to you right now.
That can help you to deliver your “no” with more conviction and courage.
Final thoughts: Saying no is an essential part of life
Life is all about choices. And the reality is that we cannot say yes to everything.
Because saying yes to something in life also demands that we say no to something else— whether that’s projects, people, or even just patterns of behavior.
If you really struggle with saying no, it’s normal.
But if it feels almost impossible for you, then you might want to look deeper into people-pleasing tendencies and whether that’s holding you back.
Learning to say no may not be easy. But it’s about learning to put yourself — your well-being, needs, and goals — first. And that is nothing to feel guilty about.