“Yeah,” you lie through your teeth. “Definitely, sounds great.” We’ve all been there. Once again you’re having an out-of-body experience as you watch yourself say the dreaded “yes” in response to a request that you have (or had) no intention of fulfilling. Why did I say that? Is it too late to back out? How am I going to navigate this without looking super flaky?
It’s a natural impulse to want to make the people around you happy with free-flowing yeses. However, never saying no can have serious repercussions on your own well-being. So, what’s the mystique around “no,” and how do you learn to say it more often? (This article will focus on low-stakes requests from people who are not threatening your safety. For guidance around sexual consent, we recommend our article “Age of Consent.” On street harassment: “How to Tell Creepy Dudes to Leave You Alone” and/or “How to Deal With Catcallers.” On surviving and processing sexual assault, you may want to read “We’re Called Survivors Because We’re Still Here.” “You Will Survive” focuses on growing up in an abusive home. For reading on abuse in romantic relationships, here are a few guides to understanding gaslighting, confronting manipulative partners, leaving an abusive relationship, and processing the trauma of an abusive relationship. For those dealing with any of the above, we also have guide to a finding a therapist.)
There are many common misconceptions about saying no, many of which I once believed:
If I say no, I am being difficult.
If I say no, I am inconveniencing everyone.
If I say no, I am a bad person.
If I say no, I am letting people down.
If I say no, people will not like me.
If I say no, the job won’t get done.
We’re taught from a young age that “no” symbolizes rejection and evokes negative feelings in the person making a request. It’s easy to think that if you say no, these negative feelings will be redirected at you as a person, or that the other person’s disappointment is a reflection of your capability, commitment, trustworthiness, or self-worth. But, as established in our guide to setting boundaries, always putting other people first is not necessarily an act of respect—for them, or yourself.
Start by interrogating what would happen in a world where you always said yes. You would become resentful of people who ask you for things. You’d be spread too thin to give your all to anyone’s request. You’d become overworked and/or ill, and you’d have less time to work on your own projects and goals. People may take advantage of your generosity, and burden you even more requests. Even in the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey has to say no eventually!
So, how to remember all this when you’re in the moment, desperate to extinguish your momentary discomfort by just giving another yes? Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Take time to make your decision.
If, like me, you have a habit of saying yes just to fill an awkward silence, it’s definitely possible to retrain yourself into the habit of saying “Can I have a minute/hour/day to think about that?” or “Can I check my calendar first?” instead. This buys you some time to step away from the hot seat and actually work out what you want to say, and how you want to say it. When in doubt, ask for time.
2. Ask yourself the important questions.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what you really want, but there are questions you can ask yourself to help: How much time/energy will this take out of me? Can I realistically do this, now? Is the request clear, or do I need more information in order to decide? Breaking down your decision into concrete factors will also help to see that it’s not a question of how much you care about this person, but whether you can afford to commit to this one request.
3. Be honest.
You may be tempted to invent an excuse for your saying no, but that enforces to yourself and to others that your own wants and needs are not valid reasons on their own. Being honest will help you stay genuine to yourself, and set a precedent for what the other person can ask of you. Giving a dishonest excuse may put you in a difficult situation if the excuse falls through, eventually taking up more of everyone’s energy than if you had told the truth. If you don’t feel comfortable enough with someone to share more personal reasons for not fulfilling their request, you are not obligated to share those with them. “No” is a complete sentence!
4. Be direct.
Avoid using euphemisms like “I don’t think so,” or offering “I’ll get back to you” in the hopes that the other person will forget about their request. Try to steer clear of qualifying, over-explaining, or apologizing for your answer. At the end of the day, the fact that you have said no should be enough.
5. Cushion your response.
There are ways other than apologizing or qualifying to make “no” sound less harsh in extra-sensitive situations. For example, offer the asker an alternate solution–this might be another person, service, or course of action. You can also wish the person luck with fulfilling the request elsewhere by saying something like, “I hope you find someone who can do it!” Simple, but it shows your saying no is nothing personal. You could also offer to help this person at another time, as long as you mean it. (If you don’t mean it, you’ll just find yourself having to say no again, later.)
6. Use the Broken Record Technique.
What if you’ve said a very well-cushioned no, but the other person doesn’t want to hear it? The Broken Record is a technique that I picked up in an assertiveness class, and it has never left my toolbox. It works like this: Think about what your main point is, and crystallize it to a short, sharp sentence that gets the message across. It might be something as simple as “I don’t want to,” or “I don’t have time.” Respond to every rebuttal or guilt trip from the other person with your trusted phrase or sentence like–you got it–a broken record. For example:
You: I really wish I could help, but I don’t have time to right now.
Them: I don’t understand why you don’t want to do this one tiny thing for me?
You: It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t have time to today.
Them: You clearly don’t care about me if you aren’t willing to do this.
You: I do care about you, but I just don’t have time to do this for you today.
Acknowledge what they’re saying, but try not to stray too far from your phrase. It can feel silly, but it’s a simple and effective technique that shows that your decision is serious and you’re not willing to budge on it. If the other person hears it enough times, they may start to hear their own persistence as unreasonable.
7. Use body language to show conviction.
Clear communication isn’t just about what you say, but how you say it. Lean in and engage, keep your stance and shoulders firm but open, and maintain eye contact. Shake your head or raise your eyebrows if you need to. Make your tone of voice as even as possible, and speak clearly and directly.
Saying no is hard, but knowing how to do it is crucial, and sometimes even liberating. When I myself have trouble, I remind myself of Mental Health America’s Bill of Assertive Rights: You have the right to take your time, the right to defy expectations, the right to change your mind, the right to demand what you want, and the right to say no. ♦