When was the last time you said “no” to someone you knew? I bet you really have to think about that. I know I did. In the past week, I’ve said “no” to exactly two people–that’s out of all the requests from my friends, family, business partner, agent, editors, and clients. On the other hand, this week I’ve said “yes” over 50 times to those same people. “Yes” to work requests, “yes” to social invites, “yes” to requests for help from family and friends.
I say “yes” to everything because I don’t want to come across as mean, lazy, boring, or uncaring, but it’s exhausting. It leaves me very little time to relax or accomplish personal goals that are important to me.
My life would be so much easier if I could just say “no” more often–so why can’t I?
“Saying ‘no’ is not something that comes naturally to the majority of people,” says Susan Newman, PhD, social psychologist and author of The Book of NO—250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. “For some, saying ‘yes’ is a habit, frequently an automatic response; for others, saying ‘yes,’ agreeing to take on whatever is asked, is an addiction.”
Newman says our lack of ability to say “no” isn’t some kind of personal flaw we’re born with–saying “no” is a learned behavior.
“As young children, the word ‘no’ is drummed out of us,” she says. “Most children seek their parents’ love and attention and come to realize that refusing what a parent asks or wants isn’t the way to get it. Toddlers, for example, who say ‘no’ often are reprimanded or punished. In some families, not doing what a parent requests leads to privileges being taken away that continues into the teen years.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Newman says as we continue to grow, we are rightfully encouraged to be nurturing and caring, and that usually involves agreeing to help others–or, saying “yes.” Combine this with the social connotation of it being impolite to say “no,” and we’re primed throughout life to avoid the word.
By the time we reach adulthood, it’s no wonder most of us suffer anxiety at just the thought of saying “no” to someone. This anxiety, according to Newman, results from the perceived ramifications about what will happen if we dare to say “no.” Will our boss give the best assignments to a coworker who says “yes” to everything, limiting our career prospects? Will our friends expel us from the group if we don’t accept every invite? Will we hurt a sibling’s feelings if we don’t have time to help them? Will a partner or child think we are self-centered or uncaring if we tell them “no”?
Ironically, the answer to all the above is almost certainly a “no.”
“The fallout from a ‘no’ is rarely as bad as you think it will be,” says Newman. The sky won’t fall, your family won’t stop loving you, and your boss won’t fire you–heck, everyone will probably respect you and your time more if you say “no” more often.
Still sound hard? Here’s how to say no to the people you think you can’t say no to:
Why you feel you can’t say no. For many people, this is the scariest person to say “no” to. After all, your boss controls your workload, paycheck, and career. “Saying ‘no’ to a superior is tricky because you want to keep in mind the goals you have set for yourself and the direction you want to go,” says Newman. “If you stretch yourself too thin, you run the risk of doing a mediocre job and harming your overall performance and reputation. If you agree, you also run the risk of having your boundaries trampled and feeling as if you are being taken advantage of.”
How to say no. “This varies with what the boss is asking, but you can say ‘no’ without actually using the word,” says Newman. For example, if you’re overloaded with work already and your boss asks you to take on another client or project, say, “I am not sure I can do that and be attentive to my other clients. Can you take me off job A until this one is finished?”
“Whatever the boss wants, ask questions about what’s involved and when the assignment is due to show you care and are trying to be helpful,” says Newman. “See if there is a way you can do part or make other recommendations that might solve the boss’s needs.”
Another way to say “no” to your boss without saying “no” is by reminding them of your current workload, saying, “I am flattered that you asked me. Can we discuss what assignments I have and due dates?”
“This will focus the boss on what you do and possibly change priorities so you can comfortably assume the new responsibility,” says Newman. “Your body language and tone of voice will make your refusal more acceptable. If you say ‘no’ without being defensive, you are more likely to be heard without being penalized.”
Why you feel you can’t say no: These are the people you work with day in and day out, and it would be nice to keep some friends at the office. “Most of us want to be viewed as a team player, supportive of our colleagues and working together for the good of the organization,” says Newman. “We don’t want to be thought of as someone who is a loner or as someone who doesn’t contribute or is not considered part of the group.”
How to say no. Be honest, advises Newman. Something as simple as, “I would like to help, but I am on overload myself,” or, “I want to help you, but xx is waiting for me to complete another assignment” will often do the trick. Phrasing a “no” this way is straightforward without being blunt, and chances are your coworker will empathize with you. After all, who hasn’t been overworked?
Just make sure you actually are overloaded with work and not saying so only as an excuse. If you aren’t honest with your coworker and they find out you really had the time to help them, you’ll have burned bridges with someone who could have helped you when you need it in the future.
Why you feel you can’t say no. As a freelancer, I’m more familiar with this than I’d like to be. I’m always afraid to turn down writing jobs, because what if that editor I said “no” to gets annoyed and they don’t ask me to write for them in the future?
“We fear losing a client if we don’t bow to every wish or request, but taking on more than we can comfortably do or do well can be counterproductive,” says Newman.
How to say no: If you take on more work when you can’t complete it to your best abilities, there’s more of a chance of your client going elsewhere in the future for that reason than for the fact that you told them “no.” Besides, five minutes after you’ve told the client “no,” they’ve most likely forgotten about it.
“When we say ‘no,’ the asker is on to the next person,” says Newman. “He or she is not thinking about you as much as you think-–that is true for coworkers, friends, and family too. If you are good at what you do or what they want you to do, they will probably ask again the next time the need arises.”
The next time you need to say “no” to a client, Newman suggests saying, “I am so disappointed that I can’t take on your project right now. I would be doing you a disservice if I did. I hope you will consider/ask me again soon.”
“By saying words to that effect, you have demonstrated that you want to work for them, that you have their best interests at heart and are genuinely enthusiastic about helping,” says Newman, who notes you could instead also ask if a later start or due date is possible to underscore your enthusiasm for working for this particular client.
Why you feel you can’t say no. Whether it’s your coworkers asking you to come out for drinks or non-work friends asking you to spend your much-needed day off helping them move, saying “no” to people you genuinely like can make you feel like you’re a bad person.
“Friends are supportive, shore us up when we are down, help each other out when a need arises,” says Newman. “These very roles, the very definition of friend, makes saying no extremely difficult.”
How to say no. The good news, says Newman, is that you should just say “no” and then forget about it, because your friends will have too. “In probably 99 out of 100 instances, your ‘no’ is tossed off because the asker almost immediately focuses on finding someone else. Only you carry the weight and worry—topped with a couple scoops of guilt.”
To move things along, Newman suggests avoiding lengthy explanations that give the asker room to come back to you or offer alternatives to the date, time, or commitment. Be brief, and make sure you convey with your refusal that it is not about them by saying things like, “The timing is terrible, I’d like to hang out, but it is not possible,” or, “I don’t feel good about lending people my truck. That’s just my policy.”
“Saying no to even casual friends and acquaintances becomes simpler when you think about what’s good for you and stop worrying about what someone else thinks,” says Newman. “Most people have surprisingly short memories.”
Why you feel you can’t say no. They are your family. You grew up with these people, or married them, or raised them.
“Relatives are the people you love most dearly, and conversely are the ones who infuriate you with their incessant requests,” says Newman. “For complex reasons that have developed over the years, you don’t want to disappoint them or be faced with their disdain. To make matters worse, you may have convinced yourself that you’re supposed to be there for them, that it’s your job to help solve all their problems and keep the peace.”
What’s even worse is that your family often knows your weaknesses and knows how to use them to wear you down.
How to say no. This varies greatly by who in your family is requesting what, but the key is to be firm and honest. If someone wants your time and you can’t be there, tell them you can’t be and explain why. Be direct and stand your ground if they protest.
If someone wants your talent, but you just don’t have the time to help, a simple, “You can do that as well as I can,” works wonders for both nicely declining their request and boosting their confidence. You could also add, “I’ll tell you how.”
And if someone in your family is requesting a big favor of you, such as watching their kids, saying, “That’s a responsibility that makes me nervous,” will be enough to put them on track to looking for someone else.
And if you still have problems saying “no”, realize that doing so often benefits your relationship with your loved ones in the long run.
“Parents, children and partners present the supreme challenge in the quest to mark your boundaries and be more of a ‘no’ person,” says Newman. “You will begin to resent family members, no matter what their age or who they are, if you continue to bow to their every need and want.”