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How to say no to others (and why you shouldn’t feel guilty)

January 7, 2022 - 18 min read

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Why is it so hard to say no?

When you should say no

Why it’s important to say no

10 different ways to say no

Helpful tips on how to say no

How to decide when to say no

N.O. No. Two simple letters. One simple word. 

But why is it sometimes so difficult to say no?

For many people, saying no is packed with guilt. Maybe you’re afraid of disappointing someone. Maybe you’re anxious to turn down your boss. Or maybe you’re a people pleaser. 

No matter the reasons, learning how to say no is an important skill for your personal health and well-being. Our time and energy are precious resources that we should use wisely. And that means we can’t do everything.

Let’s explore how to say no in different situations and why declining certain requests is sometimes better than saying yes.

Why is it so hard to say no?

For some adults, the inability to say no stems from childhood. From an early age, children are taught to be polite and forthcoming. If a parent or teacher asked a child to do something, saying no was interpreted as a form of backtalk. In some cases, refusing an adult meant punishment or negative reinforcement. 

However, this can cause issues around communication and self-assertion. Being raised to believe that saying no is bad makes it difficult for children to communicate their preferences. For some people, this inability to speak up for themselves continues into adulthood.

Another reason you may find it difficult to say no is if you doubt yourself. With imposter syndrome, you feel like you are not good enough to do the role that you are in.

Because of these feelings, you avoid saying no to others. You are afraid they will think you are unable to perform your roles and responsibilities. It can also make it hard to say no to yourself. You constantly feel that you have to say yes to prove to yourself that you can actually do your job.

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There is also empathy and human nature to consider. We are social creatures that rely on human connection. Because of our need to belong, we are afraid to disappoint others or create conflict.

In a Cornell study, people were asked to carry out tasks that went against their ethics. Although they voiced their objections, half the subjects agreed to deface a library book. This was because saying no felt too difficult.

This kind of behavior shows our inherent desire to avoid conflict and keep the peace. But is it possible that our need to be liked can do us more harm than good? 

Let’s find out. 

When you should say no

If you struggle to say no, learning to identify signs of personal discomfort can help you know when to draw the line. 

These five signs indicate you need to say no for your own good.

1. If you feel uncomfortable

Nobody knows your limits better than you do. If you are asked to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, it could be a sign that you need to say no. Take a moment to do some mindful breathing and listen to your intuition.

2. You feel guilty or obligated

In a work situation, it can be particularly difficult to say no. Your job may require you to oblige when superiors delegate tasks to you. But that doesn’t mean your time and energy are less valuable than theirs. 

Use your self-advocacy skills to step up and say no. Your decision should not be based on guilt or obligation. 

3. When you’re overloaded

If you are overloaded with work, say no to more tasks or projects. Wait until you’ve freed up some time and energy before you take on anything new.

If you are always working long hours, say no to working on the weekend. COVID-19 has drastically increased the number of employees working from home. Research shows that remote employees work longer hours and face a bigger workload than before the pandemic hit.

You may also feel especially overloaded around the holidays, as obligations from both family and work pile up. You likely need to wait until after the holiday season to take on anything new.

Keep in mind that saying no to yourself is just as important as saying no to others. Putting pressure on yourself only adds to your stress and anxiety. Make sure to prioritize your mental health and physical health to avoid burnout.

4. If the request crosses your personal boundaries

When someone asks you to do something that crosses your boundaries, it is important to stop the process in its tracks and say no. Your boundaries are worth standing up for. 

5. If you are only saying yes to please someone else

While pleasing others is a natural incentive for performing tasks, it shouldn’t be the only reason you work hard. If pleasing someone else comes at the cost of your own happiness and well-being, it isn’t worth it. 

Why it’s important to say no

Let’s go through a couple of reasons why it’s so important to say no. 

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When it comes down to it, the reason saying no is so important is because it protects our best interests. 

Whether it’s your physical health, mental health, or psychological health, saying no preserves your inner strength. It paves the way for holistic wellness

10 different ways to say no

In theory, most of us can grasp the concept of why saying no is so important. However, actually forming the words in real life can be scary and overwhelming.

In moments like these, it can help to have some statements prepared that you can turn to for guidance. These 10 phrases can be used as substitutes for the simple “no” next time you find yourself backed into a corner. 

You do not necessarily owe someone an explanation about why you are saying no. In fact, sometimes, simply saying no and not going into further detail can help you to come across as calmer and more decisive.

Helpful tips on how to say no

Many of us could use a helping hand when it comes to being more assertive. Learning how to say no can be a lifelong journey, but everyone has to start somewhere. 

  • Practice saying no. Knowing when to say no takes time and practice. The more often you say no, the easier it will become. Practice assertiveness in all areas of your life until the habit is built into your lifestyle.
  • Communicate your decision clearly. The clearer you are about saying no to someone, the better they will respond. If you are notably unsure about your decision to decline, it could be harder for others to respect your decision. Aim for clarity and simplicity. 

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  • Express gratitude for being asked. If someone asks you to do something and you respond with a no, a little bit of gratitude might help soften the delivery. Expressing thanks for being offered a new task will show others you care about their position, too.
  • Take your time to make an informed decision. If you’re uncertain about whether you want to accept a new task, that’s okay. Take your time to consider the pros and cons, and then you can re-enter the conversation with a clear head.
  • Be assertive but respectful. Not everyone who asks you to do something is trying to take advantage of you. They may just be desperate for assistance. If you can’t accept their offer, be respectful in how you communicate with them.
  • Don't beat around the bush. Providing long-winded explanations about why you can’t do something rarely makes things easier. Instead, opt for a short, simple, and straightforward approach to saying no.
  • Understand the power of influencing tactics. Influencing tactics are strategies used to engineer a specific outcome. By gaining a better understanding of how influence works (particularly in the workplace), you can become a stronger and more assertive employee.
  • Seek advice from others. Almost everyone can relate to the dilemma of people-pleasing. Ask your friends and family members if they have any tips. For professional advice, seek help from a mental health professional. They can give you expert guidance on how to say no the next time you feel put on the spot.

How to decide when to say no

Struggling to know if you should say no? It can help to have a mental list of questions to ask yourself when the right choice isn’t yet clear. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to make the right decision.

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The next time someone asks you to do something, and you’re not sure how to respond, use these questions as a template for gaining insight.

  • Do I have the time and energy to do this?
  • Will saying yes add value to my life?
  • What makes saying “no” important to me?
  • Is someone trying to bully or gaslight me?
  • Am I doing this just to please someone else?
  • Am I being used?
  • Does saying no to this mean I can say yes to something else more important?
  • Am I saying yes just because I am afraid of missing out?
  • Does something more important require my attention right now?
  • Do I need time to rest and recharge?
  •  What would need to change about this opportunity to make it a “yes”?

Learn how to say no so that you can say yes to well-being

We all need a little support sometimes. Especially when it comes to managing communication with others. But to be the healthiest, happiest version of yourself, you need to lay down boundaries.

Whether you’re at home or at work, knowing how to say no is a skill you can benefit from for the rest of your life. Prioritizing your needs is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself. 

If you need help learning how to say no, reach out to BetterUp. We help individuals realize their potential by building their skills, mindsets, and behaviors. Request a demo to learn more.

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Published January 7, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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