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9 Tips to Help You Say No and Stick to It

How to hold your ground without being hurtful or being hurt.

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(Sexual encounters present a special case of this general problem, but they are so laden with other factors and meanings, and I won’t be specifically addressing these cases here, although, to some extent, the same principles apply.)

Research on intragroup conflict shows us just why it’s so hard to be the lone negative voice in a group of people who are all on board with a solution. In an experimental study, University of Rochester psychologist Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues (2014) examined participants' physiological responses during a simulated marketing task. Asked to provide suggestions for how to market a stapler, participants were assigned to the role of agent of dissent (“Devil’s advocate"), target of dissent, or a neutral position. The agents of dissent contradicted the group’s suggestions, while the targets of dissent had their ideas consistently rejected.

The effects of saying no vs. having your ideas rejected differed substantially across those two groups and also compared to the controls. The Devil’s advocates responded initially with an immediate rise in their cardiovascular reactivity although they recovered relatively quickly. Saying no caused the agents of dissent to feel isolated from the other members of the group. Interestingly, though, it was the targets of dissent who showed the greatest levels of threat and stress, resulting in prolonged physiological reactivity, the perception of being threatened, and challenges to their basic needs for meaning, self-esteem, control, and belonging.

Saying no is stressful, then, but having no said back to you is ultimately even more so. If we translate these findings to everyday situations, they support the idea that standing out from your group can be stressful whether you’re the agent or target of dissent.

One reason that saying no is so difficult is that you fear being rejected by the other individual or individuals against whom you have to take a stand. You may feel that they will argue against you, belittle you, or reject you. Therefore, it would be helpful to know how to get your negative vote across without experiencing such threatening emotions and potentially harmful physiological effects.

Here, then, are 9 ways to defuse the negativity of your having to be negative:

  1. Know why you’re saying no. The Jamieson et al study created an artificial scenario; in real life, when you’re saying no, there is probably a more substantive reason. If you understand where your negative reaction is coming from, you’ll be better able to communicate it to the people asking you to say yes.
  2. Recognize that saying no can be stressful. Whether you’re the one coming forward with the negative response, or others are attacking you for your suggestions, it’s helpful to know that the feelings of discomfort you experience are real. By acknowledging those feelings, you’ll be better prepared to confront and overcome them.
  3. Figure out how to say no without being hurtful to others. You don’t like to be the one saying no, or to have no said back to you, and other people feel the same way. No one enjoys being criticized, but by sticking to a neutral, non-attacking way of stating your case, you’ll be less likely to create lasting animosity.
  4. Look for something positive in the situation. You and your romantic partner may have an ongoing dispute about whose family to spend the holidays with. Such disagreements don't have to create resentment, if you recognize, for example, that both of you share the value of spending time with family.
  5. Take pride in your willingness to stick up for your values. When disputes involve differences of opinion that reflect basic values, you may just have to accept the fact that you won’t ever go along with the majority opinion. The danger in group opinions is that everyone blindly follows one person’s ideas without questioning them. Being the person who avoids groupthink (in which a group talks itself into a poor decision) can make you an important contributor to the larger good.
  6. Be willing to compromise, if necessary. Having stated a position, people often find it difficult to back down. It’s possible, of course, that you are wrong and everyone else is correct. Without compromising your principles, stop and examine whether points of view other than your own have validity.
  7. Focus on the task itself. Dragging in broader relationship issues or personality clashes makes a disagreement even more unpleasant and stressful. Draw a line around the position you’re taking and don’t let your feelings about the others involved in the situation spill over. You might truly dislike a coworker who disagrees with you, but don’t let those feelings influence the way you express your views.
  8. Don’t let the situation challenge your sense of self-esteem. People who were targets of dissent in the study by Jamieson and colleagues were motivationally challenged. They questioned their sense of self and felt alienated and powerless. Just as you can disagree with people and still like them, remember that others can disagree with you and still like you too.
  9. Find a way to de-stress after the disagreement ends. As we saw from the Jamieson et al study, being the target of dissent creates negative reactions that persist throughout an interaction. At the first opportunity, take a moment to collect yourself and put the situation into perspective. Focus on something positive about the encounter or figure out a way to handle a similar one better in the future.

These 9 guidelines should get you through many of the situations in which you and your family, coworkers, or friends hold differing opinions. It’s even possible that by following them, you may be able to turn someone else’s “no” into a “yes.”

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Jamieson, J. P., Valdesolo, P., & Peters, B. J. (2014). Sympathy for the devil? The physiological and psychological effects of being an agent (and target) of dissent during intragroup conflict. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 55221-227. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.07.011

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