The art of no

It’s common wisdom that “yes” doesn’t mean anything if you can’t say “no.” And yet many of us struggle with saying no — at work, at home, and in our communities. The result can be a sense of over-scheduled, over-obligated days and weeks. And relationships suffer if one party feels that they’re being used or are obligated to make accommodations for the other person all the time. Here are some tips to make “no” easier to say — and mean it.

Clarify your thinking

There are many reasons you may feel more comfortable saying yes. Some common reasons are:
• You feel it is part of being considerate towards others. That may be the case at times, but consider whether saying yes builds resentment or removes the opportunity for others to help themselves or reach out to a broader group of people.

• You feel that your relationship to the other person is dependent on your saying yes. If this is truly the case, you may want to reconsider the value of such a relationship in your life. But in many cases it’s more a fear — that your friendship is not enough just as it is — than a reality.

• You may feel flattered at being asked.

In all these cases there is pressure to say yes in order to control the outcome — to make others feel happy, to preserve a relationship, or to preserve your pride or self-image. In small doses there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you begin to feel that you don’t have time to meet your own goals, that’s a sign that there is a lack of balance. Clarify your own priorities for your time, and then begin to act accordingly. If you feel that being helpful is important, set aside some time for that and say yes to those requests that fit into that time. Then you will be ready to say no to the rest.

Make your yes golden

One of the hazards of saying yes all the time is that people come to expect it — and they can fail to appreciate your effort over time. Another hazard is that by taking on too much you may become frazzled or have less energy to put your best effort into something. So consider your ability to say no as a way of maintaining your integrity. Then people around you will know that when you say yes, they can count on you.

Of course if you’re accustomed to saying yes, your no will come as a shock. That’s one of the times it may be helpful to offer a brief explanation: “I’ve been feeling very burnt out lately, so I’m afraid I have to say no this time. I’m sure you understand.”


Keep it short

There’s often no need to apologize or explain when you say no. A simple “no, but thank you very much for thinking of me,” or “I’m afraid I don’t have time that month, so my answer is no” helps to end the exchange and move on to other topics.

Make your default answer “let me get back to you on that.”

One of the most common reasons for saying yes when you’d rather say no is a feeling of being cornered and unwilling to say no without a “good reason.” It’s also easy to say yes in the flush of a successful event or a warm moment. But after looking at one’s calendar or in a calmer moment you may find yourself regretting having taken on an obligation. So perfect the art of delaying your decision. Some ways to make this smoother include:

• Giving a specific time that you’ll let the person know — such as “I’d like to, but I’m not sure. Can I let you know on Saturday?”

• Stating that you need to check with someone else, like a spouse, or your calendar

• Be up front about your reasons: “I want to be sure I have time to give it my best, so I’ll have to let you know”

Ask for help yourself

There’s also nothing wrong with passing the question on. For example, if you’re asked to organize something, say no — but then offer to help find someone who will. Just be prepared to take no for an answer!

Photo © Leslie Banks


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