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5 Ways to Say No Without Saying No

Have trouble letting people down? Here are the most painless ways to do it.

In response to the U.S. drug epidemic of the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” campaign, which, as you might have surmised, encouraged kids to just say “no” when offered or tempted with illegal drugs. Reagan traveled all around the country to promote the campaign, whose catchphrase was even woven into “very special episodes” of popular television shows, such as Diff'rent Strokes and Punky Brewster (the latter is where I first learned to say “no”).

The message was out in the mainstream, but did kids actually do as they were told? The data suggests no. Several studies show that students who were enrolled in “just say no” type programs, including Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), were just as likely to use drugs as those who did not participate in them. Even more alarming, one study at the University of Illinois found that some high school seniors who had taken DARE classes were more likely to use drugs than their non-DARE classmates.

Despite her good intentions, it seems Reagan missed one crucial element of the teenage psyche—perhaps, the human psyche: it’s really difficult to just say “no.” Whether you’re declining a dinner invitation or a puff of something illicit, rejecting someone just feels mean or rude. However, saying "yes" when you don't want to comes at a cost, explains Nedra Glover Tawwab, L.C.S.W. “The inability to say 'no' is a sign of passive communication style,” which is a pattern of avoiding expressing one’s true feelings and needs, which can result in anxiety, depression, and resentment.

In order to become more assertive and advocate for yourself, recognize “instances when you want to speak up, but don’t,” she says. And instead of dwelling on your feelings of helplessness, practice what you want to say the next time this interaction occurs. Eventually, you will be able to build the confidence you need to speak clearly about your needs without the guilt or justification.

Needless to say, this is all easier said than done. Practicing lines in role-play mode is far different from actually saying them in real life, and if you’re anything like me, I still have yet to master the art of saying “no,” despite many years of practice.

Until it happens, here is some expert advice I've collected on how to make saying “no” a little less painful.

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Learn other ways to say “no.” If “no” sounds too harsh for you, try something that feels softer. “I can't take this on right now” or “I don't have time in my schedule right now” are a few other options, says Suzanne Brown, a work-life balance speaker and author. Or if you can commit to only part of something, try “I can’t do the entire thing, but I can help with a specific part.”

Buy some time. Often, people feel inclined to immediately say “yes” to a request, particularly when they are put on the spot. In those situations, the best thing to do, according to psychotherapist and author, Julie Bjelland, is to ask for more time. For example, you can say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Not only does this reply give you time to think about what your needs are, it also enables you to thoughtfully formulate your response.

Start with a thank you. The truth is bad news is always going to be bad news, but it can be slightly eased when it comes with genuine consideration. That’s why Brown also suggests offering gratitude before declining. For example, if you are turning down an invitation, you might want to say something like, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I won’t be able to attend.”

Try a courage-inducing intro. Not quite ready to say “no”? No problem. Psychologist Sidney Cohen, helps his clients build their courage and overcome saying “no” through courage-inducing introductions, which he describes as “a couple words or a phrase that a person can practice saying before they come out and say ‘no.’” Examples include: “This is really hard for me to say, but this time I have to ...” or “I know this may offend or piss you off, but this time I have to …” or “I’m genuinely sorry, but this time …” He acknowledges that these intros are still challenging to say, but are a useful tool for courage-building.

Think about the consequences of saying “yes." For born people-pleasers, accommodating others feels like second nature, which is why life coach and author Kenny Weiss suggests you ask yourself the following question before you decide to commit: “Will I become resentful or throw it back in this person’s face how I did this request for them?” If the answer is yes, then you can easily see why you’re better off saying no. In fact, you could look at saying “no” as a way to strengthen and protect your relationship.

What are the most effective ways you tell people “no”? Let me know in the comments below.

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