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The Best Way to Say "No"

The magic of one simple, diplomatic phrase.

Key points

  • Jumping to "yes" is a common reaction and learning "no" takes skill.
  • You'll feel more prepared with several different ways to say "no" at the ready.
  • Like any new skill, saying "no" takes practice and becomes easier—and more magical—with time.
Source: Khorzhevska/Shutterstock

It’s hard to remember what it was like saying “yes” all the time. Yes to that steering committee. Yes to that program group. Yes to that entire marriage (oops!). Yes to mentoring requests. Yes to boards and executive committees. Yes to a free talk, a guest appearance, hosting someone in my home.

Yes, yes, yes. Until I grew resentful, my life energy draining and sputtering out, and I knew, as Malachy McCourt once said, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Someone had to teach me how to say “no.”

It seems so easy: “No.” We’ve all heard: “It’s a complete sentence.” Sparser than “yes,” and it’s not like I didn’t say “no” all the time… when my kids were in danger, when I didn’t want a second helping, when I knew an answer was incorrect. Did I simply have professional and social FOMO?

In a way, I did. Not fear of missing out on committee meetings and bylaw klatches (save me!). But yes, fear of missing out on being in the room where it happened, with the people who made it happen. Missing out on becoming, being, one of the people who made it happen. Knowing, “Yes, I helped with that,” “I led this,” and so on. And missing out, let’s be honest, on being perceived as a person who can make things happen. A leader.

There’s nothing wrong with being a leader. Sometimes, we need and want to say “yes.” And lest I sound like a rote narcissist, I only said “yes” to passion projects. But there were just so many! Positions that helped patients; helped clinicians help patients; educated the public at large, etc.

And I was lucky. Rarely asked to do anything I wasn’t dedicated to, I was privileged. Able to help forward free counseling for healthcare providers; promote nurse practitioners as excellent clinicians; assist in better conditions for nurses; and program continuing ed for psychiatrists and psychiatric providers, to name a few.

There’s the rub though, right? It always, or almost always, sounds exciting. You want to say “yes.” You’re there in your professional or social element, talking with someone about that cause that fires both your dopamine centers (the ol’ nucleus accumbens), and it would be fun, right?

Well… no. Not necessarily. It sounds lovely, yes. Until you receive that email notice for the sixth (or 12th, or 18th) committee meeting, and there’s that one member who is well-meaning but talks so much…. And it’s the only commitment interfering with that day off you planned with your partner, or friend, or kid…

The inability to say “no” strikes even in your own home: You know the dagger-stares and silent treatment your teen indicts you with if you dare cut a limitless supply of game money, nights out, new shoes.

So how do you do it? Make it a habit? As easy—or even easier—than “yes”? Because, truthfully, even when you say “yes,” you hear that little voice saying you don’t want to do it, even as you smile at the inquirer or write that email to agree.

I looked it up, here on Psychology Today, sure the subject was a common reprise because it’s such an everyday struggle. The topic of "gracefully saying 'no'" was addressed, in one early example, in 1994, when Helen Gurley Brown, famed Cosmopolitan editor and author of Sex and the Single Girl (which some attribute, along with the Pill, as responsible for the ‘60s sexual revolution), answered a reader wondering how to say “no” to a partner’s sexual advances.

Yet lo, how times have changed! Gurley Brown’s response? “I don't think you should ever say no. How much trouble can it be—especially if it's someone you've been married to for 30 years? I think you would have to be in bed with a fever of 110 degrees to say no.”

Wow. No words. 2024 mic—and jaw—drop. (It's important to note that other experts quoted by PT did not share Gurley's stance—but the prominence of her answer suggests that the view was not so out there at the time.)

I finally learned to say “no” from a favorite colleague and mentor. (Her wisdom is also found in these PT pages: psychiatrist Kathryn Zerbe, MD.) Teaching me the words and waiting patiently while I forced my lips to repeat the difficult new skill, she paid forward the magic. And in one sense, Gurley Brown was right. The word “no” needn’t ever enter into your refusal.

The secret incantation? Here it is: “I would love to, but I can’t.”

I’ve long told patients they need several “mantras” at hand in a situation where they are changing a habit—setting boundaries with a child they’ve indulged, refusing a parent’s in-home visit, advocating for themselves in a scary medical setting. “I would love to, but I can’t” replaces “no” as a sentence and carries an added advantage. It’s longer, offering time to compose a reply in case anyone asks, “Why?” You’ll be prepared for that, but they generally never do.

“I would love to, but I can’t” is perfect and necessary, but not sufficient. You can add a few more to your “no” arsenal. Some personal favorites? “I promised I wouldn’t make any commitments this week/month/year.” “Thank you, that’s lovely, my plate is too full.” “Thanks, let me think about it.” (This last gives the faint-hearted time to compose a refusal slowly, by email, text, or phone.)

At work, you can even say “no” to a supervisor: “OK, good. If you’d like me to prioritize that, help me with what you’d like to move further down my list.”

Women, especially, are taught to say “yes.” Men seem to have an easier time simply saying, “Nope. I’m good.” But women? We’re taught to please, affirm, uphold, and support. We learn this almost before we walk. Learning “no,” though, does offer magic. Others notice and follow. You’re leading, setting an example. “No” sets off a dopamine splash all its own.

Not at first, I admit. Be prepared. You might walk away from that initial, “I would love to but I can’t,” and need positive self-talk reminders: They don’t like you any less, you are doing what you need to, you deserve to prioritize your mental health.

But after the first, second, or third time, there’s the rush. The bit of magic. You stood up for yourself and look—nobody got hurt! You kept a professional commitment off your plate, knowing where your energy is best spent. Or, you refused your child more money, gently and lovingly, knowing they can figure it out.

Yes, scary at first, anxiety-provoking. But then, a bold relief. And best of all, it forwards your main goal: prioritizing and taking care of the only person you truly can change: yourself.

Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock

More from Diane N Solomon Ph.D., PMHNP-BC, CNM (Ret.)
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