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Mastering the Art of Saying "NO"


I recently read an article that gave advice on how to get out of something that you have already committed to.  While I am all for having a toolbox of tools to help you in any situation you might find yourself in, I believe that the best way out of this particular situation is to make sure you don’t put yourself into it. 

I have found that, no matter how successful or how assertive you are, everyone struggles with saying “no” at some time or in some part of their life.  Usually, this difficulty is driven by what you tell yourself—the voice in your head.  Often, what this voice is saying is driven by a fear or a worry that you may have.  Whether it is the fear of conflict—“If I say no, they won’t like or accept me”; the fear of disappointing—“If I say no, they will think less of me”; or FOMO (the fear of missing out)—“If I say no, I will not be considered for future opportunities”, the fear is very real.  Sometimes, the cause of the unwanted “yes” is because saying “no” conflicts with your values or the view you have of yourself—“How can I say no?  I’m someone people can count on.”  So, you say “Yes”.

However, this conflict does not end just by saying yes when you want to say no.  In fact, it only just begins. The inability to say “no” when you should or want to can lead to consequences that are far greater than the impact of simply saying “no” in the first place.  You may find yourself becoming overwhelmed which can lead to burnout and all the dangerous and unpleasant side effects—physical and emotional.  You may begin to feel resentful and taken advantage of by the person that you have said “yes” to, which may impact your relationship with them.  You may feel that you don’t have control over your own life.  However, the worst impact of saying “yes” when you should be saying “no” is that it robs you of the time and energy for the things you have already committed to and are truly important to you.

The first step to overcoming “No-a-Phobia” is becoming ok with “no”.  Remember, “NO” is not a 4-letter word.  It is not rude, mean, or uncaring—unless you say it that way.  Practice saying “no” in a pleasant and polite way.  Develop a response for that voice in your head to alleviate the fear that may be driving you to say “yes” and allow you to be more comfortable and less guilt-ridden about saying no.  Once you believe that it is ok to say no, the rest is just learning how to say it effectively.  Try some of these strategies to help you say “no” successfully:

  • Just say it.  Please be direct.  The other person shouldn’t leave the conversation wondering if your answer was “yes” or “no”.  Only offer an explanation if you want to.  It is far better to say “no” now than to be resentful later or worse, have to renege on your commitment.
  • Don’t Lie.  It is too stressful to try to keep a lie straight and to worry about being found out.  It is far worse to be considered someone who lies than someone who didn’t say “yes”.
  • Be polite, but assertive.  Thank them for asking.  After all, they asked you because they felt you had something to offer.  Explain that, while you appreciate them asking, you are stretched too thin to be of quality help to them.  Remember, “no” is not rude unless you say it rudely.
  • Set boundaries.  For those times when you want to do something, but you can’t manage the whole ask, suggest an alternative that you can do.  You may also ask for support in prioritizing or delegating your current tasks to allow you to take on the new one.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice.  Imagine a scenario where you have difficulty saying no and practice different ways until you find the one you are comfortable with.  Next, start saying “no” to low-stress asks or unimportant situations.
  • Be selfish.  Self-care is important so that you have the time and energy to say “yes” to those important things.  Block out time on your schedule for those things that sustain you and then protect that time.

While there are times when “no” may be the wrong answer, being able to recognize when and how to say “no” will allow you to prioritize those things that you truly want and should say “yes” to and will help you avoid those situations where you need to back out gracefully.


Leadership Coaching and Talent Development