Saying ‘No’ is as pleasant as eating cauliflower. I know very few people who are truly comfortable with it.
I experienced the hardship of saying ‘No’ early in my life. When I was in high school, all my friends started partying hard on the weekends. As for me, I am (and will always be) a morning person! And as invitations would come along, so would my rejection. Problem was, such a refusal would come with a sense of guilt, which would be slightly alleviated with an excuse to my inviters.
“Sorry, I can’t. I need to work on next week’s assignment”, I’d commonly say.
That discomfort I’d feel, combined with a willingness to get rid of it, led me to study practices that helped me become better at saying ‘No’. And though there’s still a long way to go, there are some practical strategies you can put to use if you, like me, have trouble when it comes to refusing.
But first, it’s important to understand why this is so hard in the first place.
Table of Contents
Why saying ‘No’ is so difficult?
It comes down to 3 main factors:
- Fear: Of creating conflict, displeasure, hurting the other, being judged. As naturally social species, we seek the approval of our peers. Our fears are essentially a worry for not being accepted and not belonging somewhere.
- Education: Also linked to our social nature, we’re raised with the idea that saying ‘No’ is rude. We’re condemned should we say ‘No’ to our teachers, family or any other form of authority. This is ultimately embedded in our psyche and we end up associating saying ‘No’ with egoism, rudeness, and disrespect.
- Lack of self-confidence: When we suffer from it, we put the desires and needs of others first, thinking that they have more value than our own. Hence the urge to say ‘Yes’ when we don’t really want to.
With the root-cause clear, it’s time to dig deeper into how you can say ‘No’ without feeling uncomfortable.
Understand that saying ‘No’ is a form of self-respect
Respect from others starts with self-respect. It’s paradoxical because we think that by saying ‘Yes’ to everything people will love us; and that the day we say ‘No’ they’ll reject us. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
By saying ‘No’ you earn the respect from others, which is the basis of any healthy relationship. There’s a quote that summarizes it best: “There will be times in your life when you will have to choose between being loved or being respected. Always choose respect, because love without respect is always ephemeral, while respect can turn into lasting love” (Unknown author).
Separate the person from the request
When you say ‘No’, you aren’t saying so to the person, but to their request. Saying “I don’t wanna go to a bar on Friday night” means exactly that. It does not mean “I don’t wanna hang out with you”.
Most of the time, it’s worse in our minds than in reality. We imagine others being deeply disappointed or even mad upon our refusal, but the truth is that it will never be more than a slight inconvenience.
And don’t worry. Should a misunderstanding occur, keep this in mind and clarify it with your interlocutor. They will understand (if they’re worthy of your camaraderie).
Keep in mind that you lose if you say ‘Yes’
…when in reality you wanted to say ‘No’. Emotionally, you’ll feel frustrated, bored or even angry.
In the personal sphere, you won’t enjoy yourself and will spend your time thinking about how good it would’ve been to have said no. In the professional sphere, your own priorities will go to the bottom of your list and you’ll risk underperforming.
Saying ‘Yes’ when it isn’t your true intention means putting your personal/professional goals at stake. Keep that in mind!
Switch from justifying to clarifying
There’s quite some debate on this subject. Some argue that saying ‘No’ is a reason itself and no further explanation is needed. Others claim that it’s actually necessary to give arguments that support your refusal.
I’m sort of in-between when it comes to this. You definitely shouldn’t over-justify, as too much of it puts you in a position in which you should defend yourself; when the truth is, you haven’t done anything wrong!
On the other hand, I do think you should briefly provide some context in regards to your ‘No’. Do not justify, but clarify. Doing so will help you be decisive without being over-apologetic or plain rude. Here’s an example:
Ask: Would you mind giving me a hand with this accounting report?
Over-apologetic: I’m sorry, I really can’t. I have a lot going on right now and I really need to leave on time today. My husband/wife and I are having dinner tonight, and last week I had to cancel for a similar reason.
Plain rude: I do mind, I’ve got plenty of things to do right now.
Clarifying, but not justifying: I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, and I really can’t put my hands on anything else, sorry.
Excuses are counterproductive in the long term for two reasons: First, it puts you in the position of a guilty person, who has to lie in order to get away with their ‘evil’ plan, when in reality you’re doing nothing wrong. Second, whether in the professional or personal dimensions, repetitive excuses are likely to be spotted as lies, which may compromise the strength of the relationships you create.
Avoid the snowball effect that comes with lying and be honest about your true motivations. Your future self (and your peers) will be thankful.
Accept that criticism is inevitable
Putting your priorities on top means you’ll no longer be pleasing everybody. The unavoidable result is some criticism, especially if others are used to you agreeing with everything that comes your way.
But as Aristotle said, “There’s only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing and be nothing”.
If you’re striving to stand for anything in your life, you will face disapproval from others. There’s no way around it.
To offer or not to offer an alternative?
That is the question. I’ve read a lot on this subject, and there are arguments on both sides of the aisle. But in general, it’s advised to do so in order to satisfy the other person without compromising your motivations or priorities.
However, I disagree with this position. To my mind, offering an alternative is a disguised way of saying ‘Yes’. You may not be compromising your immediate desires or concerns, but you are doing so with your future ones. Hence, my recommendation is not to offer an alternative unless circumstances make it your best option.
Practice saying ‘No’
It doesn’t come overnight. Like everything, saying ‘No’ without feeling uncomfortable is something you will master with consistency.
Start with small steps. Say ‘No’ to things that are easier than others (like respectfully refusing to seat at the table next to the restaurant’s bathroom, for instance) and start leveling up as you feel more at ease. And slowly but surely, you will get there!
To wrap it up
Does this all mean you should become a selfish person? Absolutely not! Extremes are objectively harmful. Getting out of your way for the sake of others is an act of kindness that should be celebrated and encouraged.
But, as Paulo Coelho said, “when you say ‘Yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘No’ to yourself”.
My goal is to help move the balance towards your own interests. Saying ‘Yes’ when it’s not your desire should be the exception, not the norm. In today’s world, where we’re all going at lightspeed all the time, finding time for your own interests may be more challenging than making Victoria Beckham smile (Google query on the link, for those who don’t know!).
Saying ‘No’ is a way to make that happen. Instances that truly matter to you should always be at the top of your list. As a positive side effect, saying ‘No’ more often will bring you closer to those who are able to respect you and keep you away from those who don’t care enough to understand your needs.
Be proud of and listen to yourself, say ‘Yes’ when it’s worth it. You’ll see how the pieces of self-respect, respect from others, self-confidence, and empowerment come together for the betterment of your life.