It can be very hard to say “no” to people. It seems like it should be an easy thing to do; someone asks a question, we want to say “no,” but something stops us from actually letting the word out, or even speaking a comparable, more gentle variation. In many cases, we end up either saying “yes” when we don’t really want to, or we outright lie. But saying “no” is a necessary skill to have in our relationships with friends, family, and significant others.
What makes this so difficult?
The answer can vary among people and situations, but saying “no” involves the risk of letting someone down and hurting their feelings. The protector inside of us wants to keep a person from experiencing negative feelings, especially if we’re the supposed cause of their hurt feelings. It’s possible we were raised in situations where protecting a parent or sibling from their feelings was second nature — for example, saying “no” may have been seen as disobedient, causing them upset and causing us some form of punishment (being yelled at, receiving the silent treatment, being hit, etc.).
In another scenario, it’s possible that saying “no” to people caused us to be judged as selfish, unwilling, or uncaring, resulting in people turning away from us.
Whatever the past may entail, now when avoiding saying “no”, we’re not just protecting the person who’s asking, but we’re protecting ourselves from a form of internalized punishment. Simply said, saying “no” causes anxiety because we’ve learned it will somehow come back to hurt us.
As with most areas of communication, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. There are effective and ineffective ways to say “no.” For example — saying “yes” (when want to say “no”), or lying would be considered unhealthy ways of saying “no.” Although some of us have become skilled and convincing at lying to avoid saying “no,” this is an unhealthy and ineffective form of communication. Lying builds walls, distrust, and disrespect between us and the other person, which ultimately eats at our relationships with others.
Here are some tricks to help us effectively say “no” to people:
1. Understand why
When saying “no,” there’s always a reason behind it. The question to ask is, “Why am I saying ‘no’?” If we understand the reason, it makes it easier to honestly and effectively communicate. When we say “no” and are not aware of the reason for it (aside from knowing we don’t want to do something), this creates the environment for hurt feelings on their side and guilt on our side.
2. Before getting to “no,” say “I’d like to…”
Before saying “no,” it’s nice to genuinely communicate that you’d like to be able to say “yes”. — “I’d like to run this errand for you to make your day easier, however I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed today and I’m worried committing to this will increase my stress.”
3. Limit yourself to ONE reason (the “why” from above) –
Why just one reason? Doesn’t a list of several excuses put us more in the clear? Not at all. More than one excuse starts to look like, “I don’t want to, but I’m not going to say that. I’m going to insult your intelligence instead.” This communicates dishonesty and distrust. The key here is to make sure that the reason we use is truthful. People often pick up little lies and excuses much easier than we’d like to believe.
4. Bring an Alternative
An effective way of saying “no” is to do so while saying “yes” to something else. “I would like to spend time with you on Saturday, but I’m really craving some me time. Let’s plan another day to hang out.”
5. Be open to Influence
It’s good to be able to effectively say “no” when we need to, but don’t aim to avoid “yes.” Being true to ourselves is important, but it is also okay to be influenced by those who are important to us. Maybe at first we want to say “no” to something but then decide that the request is something we can handle or might find worthwhile, even if what we’re saying “yes” to is more for them than us. Before saying “no,” it can be helpful to first see if the “yes” is possible.
It’s helpful to remember that we can’t protect people from their own feelings. Saying “no” effectively can still cause momentary disappointment for the other person, as there’s only so much that is in our control. The best we can do is to consider the areas that strengthen trust in relationships — honesty, openness, and sincerity.
Woman saying “no” photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 2 Oct 2012