Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to say is “no.”
Plus, there’s saying “no” and actually sticking to it, which can be two different things.
Here’s a guide to the art of saying no and how to set healthy boundaries and keep them.
1) Get your physical boundaries clear
What are your physical boundaries? This means your personal space, what you’ll accept in terms of aggressive behavior and your needs for physical comfort.
- How close is too close when you’re standing in line?
- Do you accept a bit of roughhousing in a good natured way or will you tell somebody to stop it?
- Will you take a ride in a taxi that’s in very bad condition or say “no thanks” and wait for one that is more comfortable?
What’s your personal “bubble?” How much space do you need?
Deciding on your physical boundaries and requirements is a key part of being able to say no to those who try to cross them.
2) Establish sexual boundaries
Where do you draw the line in your intimate and sexual life?
- How comfortable are you becoming sexually intimate soon in a relationship? Before things become serious? Before marriage?
- What sexual activities are you OK with doing in bed or which are not your cup of tea?
- Are you OK with being openly flirted with and asked out by someone or does it make you uncomfortable and anxious?
- Do you accept touches on the arm and small gestures of physical affection or do they cross the line for you?
Being clear on your sexual boundaries is very important and ensures you say no very clearly when anybody tries to cross these intimate lines with you.
3) Enforce emotional boundaries
What are your emotional boundaries? What are the lines you will not allow to be crossed in terms of your emotions?
- Will you accept somebody playing the victim to you or asking you for affection, time, energy and help because they are doing poorly or say they are doing poorly?
- How much negativity will you tolerate from those around you and sympathize with?
- What is the line for you in a romantic relationship in terms of what you will accept or not accept with how you are treated?
Your emotional boundaries matter and it’s up to you to draw the line in the sand whenever possible.
4) Hold to your financial boundaries
You also need to get clear on what you will say no about financially.
- How much do you expect other people in your life to pull their own weight financially?
- How far will you go with your money to support a family member, friend or romantic partner who’s unable to work?
- Who do you loan money to and when do you say no?
- What will you accept as a salary and what’s simply too low?
Your finances are your business.
You have the right to say no when it comes to people trying to borrow your money, get you to spend your money or try to manipulate what you do with your money.
Your money is yours.
Your financial decisions are yours, and knowing when to say no is key.
5) Be clear
Far too many people try to turn something down or say no in the most indirect way possible.
This is especially common in very polite cultures where it might be considered rude to just say “no.”
You’ll hear many ways to try to say no without being rude. Things like:
- “I don’t know…”
- “I’m kind of busy right now, so, well, maybe uh…”
- “Well, the thing is, uh…”
- “I’ll think about it.”
- “I don’t really want to, I dunno.”
- “I sort of agree, but only partly.”
- “Can I get back to you on this?”
- “Oh, wow. Thanks for the invitation. Um…I’m flattered…”
All of these kinds of polite stalling ways of trying to turn something down can just make it more confusing and unclear that you really are drawing a line.
You’re trying to soften your “no” too much and beat around the bush.
Instead, the right thing to do is:
6) Be polite but not vague
If an old friend invites you out to a get-together with old friends and you’re really not feeling it, you probably won’t just text back “no” to the invite or say “no” on the phone.
But at the same time, there is a way to say no while also being clear.
The key is to be polite while still making it clear that you’ve made up your mind.
Common ways to say no politely?
- “No, thanks.”
- “Sorry, but no.”
- “No, I can’t. I’m very busy.”
- “I’m feeling under the weather, sorry, no.”
- “No can do. Maybe next time.”
- “Can I take out a rain check?”
Each “no” depends on the context. Optimally, you won’t have to lie and say you’re busy if you’re not, for example.
It’s always best to be as honest as possible and say no as directly as possible without being harsh.
This establishes a boundary and respect, showing that you mean it when you say no.
7) Be harsh when necessary
Then we get to the type of “no” that has to be a little more forceful.
This could be when you’re refusing to lend more money to a friend who’s an addict, or turning down a stalker who keeps asking you out and following you after you’ve turned down his advances.
This could be a bully asking for forgiveness when you’re not ready to give it, or a boss demanding that you work overtime or be fired.
This could be somebody pressuring you into sleeping with them, use drugs you don’t want to use, or drive while drunk.
The point is, there are times when your “no” really has to count and be taken extra seriously, and being polite isn’t necessary since those pressuring or manipulating you have already made it clear they don’t respect you.
- “Not going to happen.”
- “The answer is no, and I mean it.”
- “No, back off.”
- “No chance. Stop.”
- “F*ck off. No!”
8) Be proactive instead of reactive
Your “no” can come from two basic places:
A place of defense and trying not to get roped into something, or a place of proactivity and not being able or wanting to do something because you have other priorities.
The best kind of boundaries comes from a place of power rather than defense.
In other words, your goal should be to be so focused on what you do want that saying no to what you don’t want is no longer a big deal and just comes naturally.
Becoming too focused on what you don’t want can lead to a disempowering cycle and get you feeling isolated and weakened.
By contrast, focusing on the positive relationships, goals, ideas, and principles puts you in the driver’s seat.
Your “no” now comes from a place of power and forward-looking purpose rather than a place of defense or passive negation.
9) Be consistent
It’s much easier to say “no” and stick to it if you’re consistent.
If you say no to casual sex one time but then say yes the next time, people won’t really respect your boundaries and neither will you.
If you refuse to be friends with someone who manipulates you for money but then continually let him come back into your life, he’s just going to keep coming back.
When people can see that your boundaries are emotional and reactive instead of principle-based and consistent, they’re going to not respect your boundaries and keep trying to cross them endlessly.
When you are consistent in the boundaries you set and stick to, people respect and obey them.
Those who don’t need to be met with conviction, but eventually, the word gets around that you’re a person of his or her word, and the infringements against you start to recede and stop.
10) Have reasons for your “no”
Why are you saying no?
To be clear, you may just not feel like doing something, but your boundaries more widely should have a reason.
For example, if you’re focused on work and your friend invites you out for drinks, you say “no thanks” because you legitimately are focused on putting work first right now.
When you have a reason for saying no, it’s much easier to stick to and stay consistent about it.
When you just say no haphazardly or on the spur of the moment, it’s very easy for others to convince you or talk you into doing what they want.
No way, Jose
When you respect yourself and stand behind your “no,” people can tell.
When you have a mission in life and prioritize your goals above the schedule and desires of others, you also gain in self-confidence, and people take you much more seriously.
Saying no isn’t a bad or negative thing, it’s the start of a proactive and more selective life that empowers and incentivizes you.