How to Say “No”

It should be easy, but it’s not. For many, the inability to say that one little word creates no end of stress, frustration, and misunderstanding. What makes it so difficult to say no? Some of the predominant factors seem to be: guilt over letting someone else down; fear of conflict or disagreement; denial of our own needs and feelings; and sometimes, a simple lack of skill and practice.

In earlier generations, it was completely unacceptable for children to say “no” to adults. And the truth was, a lot of the adults themselves did not know how to say no. So instead of learning assertiveness through good modeling, many of us grew watching parents and other adults go to any length to avoid saying no:

  • Expressing indirect resistance when agreeing to a request (I’m exhausted, but okay….)
  • Sending contradictory nonverbal messages (saying yes, but looking unhappy about it)
  • Passive-aggressive behavior (taking forever to get something done, or doing a careless job)
  • Doing what the other person wanted, but acting sulky or resentful in the process.

Underneath these unassertive responses lurk various assumptions that, over time, can take a toll on our relationships and self-esteem. For example, we might assume that it is mean and selfish to refuse anything to a friend or family member . . . that we will be rejected or abandoned if we don’t keep giving others what they want . . . that we should always put others’ needs before our own . . . . When we avoid saying no to things we don’t want to do (or don’t have the energy to do!), the unconscious wish is to make everyone love us so that we will be forever protected against loss and disappointment. Of course, such a habit of self-sacrifice can cause us to lose respect for ourselves – and might actually teach others to mistreat or take us for granted.

Learning to say no takes practice, but the payoff can be enormous in terms of gaining better control of your day-to-day life, relationships and emotions. Below is a list of suggested phrases that can be used to say no, along with general guidelines for developing this type of assertiveness.

  • Thank you, but no. Especially helpful if someone insistently offers something you don’t want – food, a date or social invitation, etc.
  • That really won’t work for me. A good, all-purpose “non-explanation”
  • I really need to say ‘no’ to that. Gentle, but definitive
  • I’m afraid I can’t do that for you.
  • I’m really not comfortable with that.
  • I need to take care of myself and say ‘no.’

I know that I originally said I would _________, but I realize now that…
(…I really should not move furniture with my back problem.)
(…I have over-committed myself and this would be too much.)
(…I am just not comfortable with lending my car.)
(…I should have said “no” in the first place.)

We all need to learn to “un-do” things we have agreed to under pressure, or without enough thought for how we might be affected by an extra demand.

General Pointers
  1. As they say in the 12-step self-help programs: Remember that no is a complete sentence. If you want to be polite, say No, thank you.
  2. When it comes to social invitations and requests for favors, not wanting to do something is a sufficient reason to say no. And keep in mind that it is most impolite for another person to try to make you feel guilty or obligated.
  3. In most situations, you don’t owe an explanation for why you need (or choose) to say no. Saying That really won’t work for me conveys that you must have a valid reason for refusing a request or invitation, without offering excuses that can be discounted.
  4. If the other person asks for an explanation or tries to pressure you, you can firmly repeat your original statement. If the guilt-trip is flagrant, you can say, It seems like you’re trying to make me feel guilty. You can also say, I really don’t want to explain myself, or I’m sure you understand that I need to do what I’m comfortable with.
  5. Other statements that can make it easier to stick with your assertive response:
    • I know this might be disappointing, but I do need to say ‘no’.
    • It’s hard for me to say “no”, but I really do need to in this instance.
    • I’m trying to work on becoming more assertive, so I am going to just say ‘no’.
  6. Often, we assume that any request or invitation requires an immediate response. This allows us no time to consider our own needs or to formulate an assertive answer if we want to say no. Give yourself permission to take time to think. And, if you absolutely cannot trust yourself to say no when you need to, establish a “policy” that you never give an immediate answer to anyone (except in an emergency). You can learn to automatically say, I will need to check a few things and get back to you, preventing much frustration and difficulty in your quest for better assertiveness!

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Luscious Cherry-Sour Cream Pie

Mix one carton of sour cream (lowfat or nonfat okay) with a 16-oz can of cherry pie filling. Pour into a prepared graham cracker crust, cover and chill at least two hours.
Variation: use blueberry pie filling instead.

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