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How (And Why) to Say No

Saying no is an essential psychological skill, and one that many struggle with.

Key points

  • It is important to recognise that every request and invitation carries an opportunity cost.
  • Many people struggle to say no to requests. In order to better manage their time, they need to understand what is stopping them from saying no.
  • There are a range of ways to respectfully say no, while still maintaining healthy relationships.
Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

Saying no is a skill that most of us struggle with. It is very common for many people in therapy to trace some of their anxiety, stress, and overwork to difficulties, or an utter inability to say no. People over-commit to a range of things and often feel like they have to say yes to every opportunity that might come their way. However, every new choice comes with an opportunity cost (i.e., the loss of capacity to invest in other options). As an example, when I made the decision to sit down and write this post, I gave up the opportunity to instead complete a yoga session, go for a walk, see a client, read, sleep. Every choice we make comes with a financial, time, and energetic cost and we forget this to our detriment.

People often struggle to say no because of a multitude of reasons, including socialisation (“you can’t say no to people,” “you must not be selfish”), expectations from friends and family, the fear of missing out, and structural commitments (having to keep up with diverse roles, such as work and childcare). Sometimes we need to say no to other people, but sometimes we need to be able to say no to ourselves first.

My clients often express a range of worries when they consider saying no to something. Some common worries include:

  • Not knowing when to say no or what to say no to
  • Being unsure how to politely say no
  • Being worried about how the no will be received (worrying that people will become upset or angry when they receive a no)

With the latter, I encourage people to remember that a good boundary to hold is knowing that we cannot control someone’s reaction to something—the only control we have is in carefully assessing a no, and in offering it respectfully and politely. Allowing other people to experience and process their feelings without making it your responsibility, is a key competency when thinking of saying no to something. It might be helpful to remember that most reasonable people will respond well to an occasional no, and if someone is unreasonable then it is even more reason to erect firmer boundaries and say no more often.

In general, when trying to work out when to say no, I encourage people to ask themselves a number of questions to assess opportunity costs. These questions are:

  • Do I have the time, energy, and money for this at the moment?
  • Do I want to do this?
  • Will this add value to my life?
  • Is this aligned with my values?
  • Am I saying yes, only because I am scared of saying no?

If the answer to any of these questions indicates that a no might be in order, then it is important to know how to say no. The main things to consider when saying no are the context of the relationship (how close is the relationship?), the request being made or opportunity being offered, and what we want to say no to (we might want to say no to part of the request but allow another part).

Some people find it easier to say no to people close to them because they know what response they might receive and some people might hold the belief that being in a close relationship means being self-sacrificial and always being there to support someone else. In general, the closer the relationship, the more likely it is that we will want to be there for someone, but this does not mean that we never say no. It is probably even more essential to have good boundaries with the people closest to us, so we can maintain healthy and long-lasting relationships. Some simple, but relationship-maintaining ways of saying no are:

Thank you, but that is not for me./Thank you, but no.

Simple, easy to understand, and makes it about you, not the other person. It is also perfectly okay to say no without explaining why.

That’s a lovely offer, but I have over-committed and can’t fit that in at the moment. Can we try that next month?

A good one to use when you want to do something, but don’t have the time, energy, or money for it. Another way to say this might be, "I don’t mean to offend, but my bucket is full and I cannot take that on right now."

I don’t have the capacity to do X at the moment, but I could do Y?

A good one to use when you feel like you can say yes to part of a request or can offer a compromise (“I can’t man the bake stall, but can drop off a cake.”)

Sorry, I have something else on.

It is important to use this one carefully only when it is true, not as an easy social white lie to avoid saying no.

I can’t help with that request, but have you tried talking to X about it?

Sometimes we are simply not the best people for the role, or can’t offer what is being sought. I will often use a variant of this in personal relationships when I feel like people are over-stepping my boundaries and seeking mental health support on a consistent basis from me, instead of seeking therapy support from another professional (I never try to be a psychologist to my friends, colleagues or family members).

I don’t think I’m the best person to help with that, sorry.

Simple and honest.

I’m sorry I can’t help with that, but I think you will do a great job yourself. Perhaps we can talk it over later?

A good way to offer a compromise when you feel like someone might be too dependent and is asking you for support for things they may be able to do themselves.

The crux of saying no is understanding why you are saying no, noting what you are saying no to, and understanding your blocks by saying no. Are you scared of missing out? Feeling guilty? Worried about the response? It can be helpful to remember opportunity costs and to remember that saying no to things that do not align with our goals and values can help open up time for things we do value and can thus contribute to a happier and more fulfilling life.

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