Babies and young children find it is easy to indicate or say no. If a baby doesn’t want to eat something, they’ll shake their head, turn away, or even keep their mouth firmly shut. Should you be lucky enough to get the food into their mouth, there’s still a strong chance they’ll spit it out. In doing so, they’re simply stating their opinion the only way they know how.
As babies become toddlers, their ability to express their thoughts and feelings increases. They quickly learn to say the word no and understand exactly when to use it.
Based on this, you’d think that we’d only become more efficient and effective at saying or indicating no as we progress through life. Though, this isn’t always the case. Instead, we tend to find it harder, and at times, impossible.
But, knowing when to say no is an important life skill that can help to empower us, give us greater control over our lives, and protect us from becoming stressed or overwhelmed by too many demands.
Saying no also allows us to set boundaries with friends, family, and colleagues. Plus, it can be a confidence booster, because it takes courage.
Below, we’ll take a look at why we have difficulty saying no and how we can improve our ability to say and mean it.
Why is it so hard to say no?
There are various reasons why we might find it difficult to say no, even when we really don’t want to do something.
Common reasons include…
- It’s easier to say yes
- You don’t want to let someone down or offend them
- You believe you won’t be liked if you say no
- If you say no at work, you believe it’ll have a negative impact on your job prospects
- You want to be seen as a team player and believe if you say no, you won’t be
- You want to return a favour
- Everyone else is saying yes, so you feel the need to
- You feel guilty if you say no
- It’s more natural to you to say yes than to say no
- You’re a people pleaser by nature
- You truly want to help
Sadly, for some, choosing when to say no can also be a matter of survival, like for those in an abusive relationship. If they say no to their abuser, they may be in greater danger of being physically or emotionally abused.
8 ways to say no and why it’s important
Though knowing when to say no to people is an important part of life, many people worry about how it will be received. But there are a number of different ways you can assert yourself, while remaining kind.
Let’s look at a few of these…
1. Remember that a simple thank you or a compliment goes a long way
It might sound obvious, but remembering to say thank you when declining an offer from someone who’s trying to be kind or supportive can go a long way in softening your response – as can cushioning it with kindness or a compliment.
Though you might be worried about letting someone down, it’s still possible to position your refusal in a way that could leave them feeling good about themselves.
For example, “Thanks for offering to help me, but I’m managing at the moment. However, if I need some help, you’ll be the first person I’ll call.”
Another response could be, “Although this sounds like a fantastic opportunity, I’m going to have to pass on it. But thank you for considering me! I feel honoured to be asked.”
Or, “Oh I wish there are two of me as I’d love to come, but I’m unable to.”
2. Consider how to say ‘no’ without saying ‘no’
While it’s important for us to assert ourselves and live as authentically as possible, most of us will agree that simply saying ‘no’, can sometimes be received bluntly. It’s generally better to expand on your answer if you want to keep things friendly and let someone down gently – or to consider other ways to say ‘no’ without actually saying ‘no’.
For example, if asked whether you want to travel to a work meeting with your colleague and you don’t really want to, you could say no in a roundabout way, such as, “I still have some calls to make, but I’ll see you there.”
Or, when If asked if a presentation went well if it didn’t, you might say, “In all honesty, I think there’s room for improvement.”
3. Be clear that you would love to help, but you simply don’t have time in your schedule
There’s a famous quote, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”, that’s sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Though this a complete paradox, many argue that those who’ve become well-known for being busy and productive will usually possess the skills and qualities needed to get things done – such as how to prioritise tasks and effectively plan their schedule. And knowing when to say no can be an important part of this.
This means that if you’re looking to be more efficient with your time, it might be necessary to say no to certain tasks that aren’t at the top of your priority list.
However, simply saying, “Sorry, can’t do it”, could come across a little abrupt. So, instead, you could say, “Unfortunately I don’t have the time to help you at the moment, but I hope you find somebody who can.”
If you know you can’t do something for someone, it’s also a good idea to bite the bullet and tell them sooner rather than later, even if it makes you feel awkward. This gives them more time to find help elsewhere, so they aren’t left in the lurch.
This goes for social engagements too because the earlier you RSVP, the more time a person has to plan for your absence – for example, by inviting someone else.
4. Remember that in many cases, honesty is truly the best policy
There are occasions when being truthful is the best course of action. You might think that telling a ‘white lie’ will spare someone’s feelings, but the opposite can be true if they suspect you’re lying.
Instead, it can be better to tell the truth and make them aware that you’re being completely honest.
For example, when asked by a friend if you’d like a piece of chocolate cake, you could say, “No thanks, I don’t like chocolate cake.”
This will generally be better than accepting the cake, trying to eat it and pretend you like it, and having your friend work out that you aren’t keen. Or worse still, taking it and then looking for ways to subtly dispose of it without anyone noticing.
Being honest can also prevent awkward situations in future, such as that friend baking you your very own chocolate cake because they thought you enjoyed it so much!
5. Leave someone with the possibility that you might say yes another time
This approach might look as though you’re kicking the decision to say ‘no’ down the road, but suggesting that you might say yes in future (even though you can’t say yes now) can be a polite way of putting someone off indefinitely.
You could say something like, “I’d love to speak at your event but not this year, maybe next year.”
However, it’s best to use this technique sparingly, as it can be awkward to use the same explanation everytime you don’t want to do something. If you feel strongly that you don’t want to do something and know you probably won’t want to do it again in future, you’re usually better off saying no at the outset.
6. Set your own terms
Most of us have found ourselves in situations where we want to help or to spend time with someone, but are unable to at that time. Or where we need to think about what we’re being asked to do before we commit.
In these instances, you might want to answer, “Could we do it another day?” or “I’d love to help you, but it’s really not a good time for me at the moment.”
You could also say, “Let me think about it and get back to you” or “I’ll need to take care of some things first.”
If you can’t help someone but you know someone who could, another option could be to put them in touch. For example, “I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I know someone who can. Would you like me to contact them?”
7. Consider providing a reason for saying no - but only if you feel comfortable doing so
Sometimes (if appropriate), providing a reason for why you’re saying no can help someone to better understand and accept your decision.
In a work situation, you could say to someone who’s pitching an idea, “This is a really great idea. Unfortunately, our current budget doesn’t currently allow for it.”
There are also times when it won’t be appropriate to provide the reason for your rejection. In that case, it’s better to keep it short and sweet. For example, “I regret we’re unable to consider the opportunity at this time.”
By using the phrase “at this time”, you’re indicating that you aren’t completely against an opportunity if it presents itself in future – you’re just not a position to do it right now.
Away from work, when asked to do something on a particular day, you might want to say, “I’m sorry, but I already have plans which can’t be changed.” Or, “I’d love to but I have to work.”
8. Wrap no in an apology
Using an apology to say no is a good way to show that you don’t like saying no – while still saying no. It’s also another way of softening your response and avoiding hurting any feelings.
If asked if you want to go out for lunch, you could say, “I’m sorry, but not today, as I’ve got too much on” or when asked if you have time to assist with a project, you might say, “Sorry, I wish I could help, but I’m stacked at the moment.”
Including words like ‘sadly’, ‘regrettably’, and ‘unfortunately’ can also be useful.
How to saying no to children, both young and adult
When it comes to young children, it can be helpful to be creative and learn when to pick your battles. Often the word ‘no’ itself can feel antagonist to children, so being clever with your answers can encourage a more positive outcome.
For example, if you catch them pulling off the heads of your flowers in the garden, you could say something like, “Flowers need to grow. Let’s be gentle.”
This aims to help them develop empathy and understand why picking heads of the flowers can be a bad thing – rather than simply telling them off for something they see as fun.
It can also help to consider whether saying no is worth the argument. Ask yourself if there’s really any harm in a younger child wanting to wear their favourite t-shirt and shorts or dress to bed, rather than their nightwear? If not, then it can sometimes be best to let it go and save any arguments for things that could pose a greater threat to your child’s safety or development.
With adult children, saying no can be easier if you set some strong boundaries. When they come to you for money or they want to move back home, your instinct might be to say yes. Its natural for parents to want to support their children no matter what their age is or their circumstances are.
However, there’ll likely be times when you’ll find yourself wanting or needing to say no. Maybe it’s because they’re asking you for more money than you can afford or feel is justified – or you feel like they are treating your home like a hotel.
Rather than getting into a confrontational situation about this, it can help to try offering them some alternatives and support to set them on a different path. You might want to read our article on helping your adult children find their independence if they’re living with you, which offers further useful advice.
How to say no when you need to take some time for yourself
There are going to be times when you need to take some time for yourself, and you may need to say no to others to make time and space in your schedule to do that.
In these instances, you could say, “I would if I could, but I can’t” or “I’ve got so much on at the moment, I don’t want to take anything else on.”
Try to remember that saying no so you can take some time for yourself, rather than to fulfil a specific plan, is perfectly okay.
You might also like to read our article on The 7 types of rest you need to be your most productive self, to learn more about why social rest is so important.
As can be seen, there are many reasons why some people have difficulty saying no. But, there are equally as many ways of saying it – which can help to make things that bit easier.
And while saying no might not come always come naturally, doing so can be important for your mental health, and can make you a stronger, more confident person.