Have you ever found yourself stuck in a situation you didn’t like because you were too afraid to say “no”? It might’ve been a social event, a favor, a work obligation, or a plethora of other things that feel too uncomfortable to decline.
If you’ve ever struggled to say “no,” whether it’s in your personal life or at work, you’re not alone.
The ability to say “no” confidently isn’t something people are born with – like public speaking or negotiation, it’s a skill that’s developed with practice. With the right framework, anyone can start becoming more confident in this skill and reap its benefits.
This article covers how to say “no” without feeling guilty in 5 simple steps, so you can reclaim your time, become more confident, and improve your relationships with others.
I made a video that covers these steps in a little more detail, check it out! Otherwise, we’ll cover similar ideas below.
When is it important to know how to say “no”?
Saying “no” was something I struggled with – that is, until I started working as a freelancer in the film industry.
This new career forced me to make decisions and say “no” much more often than I was used to. As a freelancer, I was forced to practice the skill much more often. I quickly found that saying “yes” to the wrong project meant being unavailable for projects that were potentially more interesting, provided better growth opportunities, or paid more. Learning to say “no” was one of the reasons I was able to accelerate my career much faster than some of my peers who had started at the same time as me.
Once I started getting better at saying no in the context of work, I also became more confident in saying it in social situations. I found myself feeling happier with how I spend my time, setting boundaries with people who had been taking advantage of my timidness, and building better connections with friends because I could be honest about what I did and didn’t want.
Think about the situations you might want to say “no” in your personal and professional life….
- Getting asked to do favors you’re not comfortable with
- Spending money on activities or events you don’t care for
- Being asked out on a date by someone you’re not interested in
- Feeling pressured to drink or do drugs
- Getting sucked into conversations that leave you drained (like when someone is just offloading their problems on you or gossiping endlessly)
- Getting pinged by coworkers when you’re trying to focus
- Having extra responsibilities piled onto your plate when you already feel overtaxed
- Being given unreasonable deadlines
- Your manager assuming you can work overtime without asking
- Your team not respecting your work-life balance
- Getting placed on projects that don’t align with your long-term goals
This is far from a comprehensive list, but it gets you thinking about all the situations you might feel too uncomfortable saying “no” in.
You might have a hard time saying “no” to these things because you think it would make you selfish. That’s totally normal! We have an evolutionary need to be accepted and liked. No wonder it feels so unnatural and even stressful to disagree with people in our close circles.
Saying “no” doesn’t make you selfish. It doesn’t mean you’re mean-spirited.
Saying “no” makes you more honest with others so that you can show up as your best self. It protects your time and energy from being swallowed up by obligations and social pressures.
The upsides of saying “no”
Saying no is a skill that creates a ripple effect on many areas of your life. When you learn how to say “no” to people without feeling guilty, you:
Improve your relationship with yourself by…
- Reclaiming your time and energy and feeling more in charge of your life
- Having better clarity on your goals and values
- Freeing up to say “yes” to things that matter to you
- Becoming less susceptible to peer pressure or people pleasing
- Showing up with more intention and energy in both your work and personal life
- Increasing your self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect
Saying “no” also helps improve your relationships with others by…
- Setting healthy boundaries with friends, family members, and work
- Providing feedback for other to understand how to help you
- Building more honest relationships
- Building trust in others because they see you being authentic
- Empowering others to speak up for themselves and be honest about what they need
When you speak honestly, you take care of yourself so that you show up more authentically in the world. When you show up authentically, you end up bringing more of your own unique contributions to those around you.
Want to develop this skill? Read on.
The 5-step process to saying “no” (minus the guilt)
1. Remember your reason
Right now, think about why it’s important for you to be able to say no.
There are plenty of upsides to learning how to say no. Figure out what’s the most important reason for you.
Don’t skip this part. Saying “no” to people is uncomfortable. It’s much more tempting to stay in our comfort zone, to constantly agree with others at the expense of our well-being. If you want to overcome that hurdle, you need to have a “why” that is strong enough to outweigh the desire to proceed as usual.
What’s the most important reason for you to be able to say “no”? Why does this matter to you? How will your life improve when you start being the type of person that’s comfortable enough to speak up for themselves?
Write your “why” down in your phone. Next time you find yourself tempted to agree with someone or do something you’re not comfortable with, open that note and reread it. Remember why you want to do this in the first place, and the rest will come with less resistance.
2. Take your time
Let the person you’re talking with know that you will get back to them with an answer.
Buying yourself some time and getting some space gives you a chance to do two things:
- Think through your decision in a lower-pressure environment
- Figure out how to say no (if that’s what you decide)
This may feel uncomfortable if you’re used to agreeing with people right away (lookin’ at you, people pleasers). You don’t need to respond to all requests and invitations right away. It’s ok to ask for some time before getting back to someone.
This can be as simple as “Let me get back to you on that” or “I need to check on some things before I can commit.”
Don’t over-explain. They don’t need to know your entire thought process. Let them know you need a little time to get back to them, and leave it at that. Give a time that you’ll follow up by, especially if the request is time-sensitive.
If you can, get some space from the situation. Walk to another room or step away from your computer. When you physically distance yourself from your worry, you give yourself a chance to get some perspective and think clearly, rather than just reacting.
This isn’t an excuse to dilly-dally or procrastinate – get back to them as soon as you can. But know you don’t have to have an answer immediately.
3. Know your “no”
Once you’re in a place that you can think through your decision, if your gut is telling you “no,” figure out what kind of “no” it is.
It’s important to know what specifically is putting you off from the situation, so that you can communicate clearly and with conviction. Plus, it’ll help you understand what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on, or potentially come up with alternatives.
There two different flavors of “no:”
- “No” to the timing
- “No” to the situation (or just part of it)
“No” to the timing
Sometimes we have to say no because we have too much on our plate, the timing is bad, and taking on more would cause us undue stress. Maybe your manager asks you to do a presentation on a project you’re passionate about to your broader team, but you’re spread too thin to take on extra work this quarter. Or maybe a friend invites you to happy hour but you have plans later that night or just need some time to relax by yourself. It can even be your coworker pinging you to chat while you’re in the middle of focusing.
In these situations, it’s often the case that we say “yes” instead of “not now, but later” because we don’t want to miss out on an opportunity we’re interested in, even though taking it on now would mean adding stress to our lives. It’s important to remember that in addition to “yes” and “no,” there are options like “sure, can we find a different time?”
“No” to the situation (or part of it)
Other times, we want to say no because the situation itself rubs you the wrong way, either in part of in full. This could be a close friend who makes you uncomfortable by constantly gossiping about another friend. It might be your boss asking to push up a deadline by a week, which would make you have to work over the weekend. It could be a family member regularly asking for last-minute rides to the airport, or a distant relative who only shows up when he needs help moving. Maybe your peers are pressuring you to drink more than you’re comfortable with.
Figure out what’s the real reason you’re opposed to the situation. Is someone crossing a line, like in the case of a friend constantly bad-mouthing another friend? Are they asking for too much, like the relative who seems to think it’s normal to demand you drop everything to help them with a favor on short notice? Are your boundaries being violated, like the coworker who messages you with requests outside of business hours? Is what’s being offered just not something you’re interested in, like a date with that friend of a friend you’ve always found creepy, or a social event you aren’t excited about?
Identify what specifically bothers you about the situation. Are there any alternate scenarios you would be comfortable with? For example, maybe you don’t mind driving your great aunt to the airport, but you need to know about it a week ahead of time and not the day before. Or maybe you’d like to help your coworker, but not outside of work hours.
It’s very possible that the whole situation rubs you the wrong way and that you wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, even if some changes were made. That’s ok. The point here isn’t to convince yourself to do something by offering alternatives, it’s to know your own boundaries and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on.
4. Communicate clearly
Once you’ve taken a moment to understand what you’re saying “no” to, you’ll have better clarity on your reasoning and more confidence in stating your grounds. Being internally clear on what you do and don’t want is already half the battle.
Now it’s time to do the thing and communicate!
Communicating “no” clearly comes down to three things: brevity, honesty, and tone.
Keep it short! When you’re saying “no,” you can give as much or as little reason as you want. Most of us want to give some context, but we sometimes over-explain if we’re worried about the other person being disappointed. When we do this, we come off as less confident. Giving too much detail can also backfire by making it look like we’re trying to convince the other person of something (i.e. we’re making up reasons).
Share that you can’t make it, give a short reason why, and move on.
Be honest about your limitations, and about what kind of “no” this is. If the timing doesn’t work for you because you need to take some time to yourself, say so. If a project is off-putting because you’d rather focus on a different area of the business, be honest.
Most people are understanding and want to help you feel comfortable. When you’re honest about what’s bothering you, you give others a better understanding of how to work with you. It’s feedback that they can incorporate in the future.
Be honest, but don’t be brutally honest. Sometimes we don’t want to do something because we just don’t like the person who’s asking. If that’s the case, you don’t necessarily have to say that to their face. Tell them you’re unavailable. No need to add reasons if the reasons will just cause drama.
Speaking with confidence and a sense certainty tells the other person that you are firm in your decision.
How do you convey a confident tone? Put a period at the end of your sentences.
If you’ve gotten all worked up and can’t remember what it feels like to speak confidently (don’t worry, I’ve been there), here’s a trick you can do. Go into a room by yourself, look in the mirror, and say the following out loud: “two plus two is four.”
Hear that conviction? That’s what it sounds like to be absolutely certain of something. Now, using the same tone, practice your “no” response.
5. End on a positive
End your “no” statement on a positive note, especially if this is a relationship that’s important to you. Remind them that even though you had to decline or enforce a boundary, that they matter to you and are appreciated.
This might be:
- “…but thank you so much for thinking of me”
- “I really appreciate the invitation”
- “Thank you for reaching out and including me”
- “I hope we can work together soon”
If you have an alternative you’d like to propose, this would be a great time. Otherwise, if it was a hard pass, you can just leave it on a friendly note.
Now, I want to know from you:
What situations do you have a hard time saying no to? Leave a comment below and I’ll reply with my thoughts.