Many of us feel guilty when and if we say no, yet do not realise how much good it can do us to say no more often; that is, to take less on, and to choose what we engage with in terms of that which brings us more joy, benefit and well-being. Often in life, we may even have felt uncomfortable or miserable while declining a certain invitation to an event, or when asked to be involved in something simple and basic. And don’t worry!

It is something we all go through. All of us can feel bad saying no to a friend, a family member, or even at times a little-known acquaintance, not because we’re purposefully trying to avoid them or do not like them, but because we either have too much on our plate already or because we want some time for ourselves as well and even because we are not comfortable with something. Whatever the reason, know that there is absolutely no reason to feel bad, you may well be doing yourself a great favour.

Also understand that no matter how many times you try to say “NO”, you may end up saying yes because you care too much about what the person may feel or think. However, have you ever thought about what the consequences of ‘not’ saying no are? Have you pondered over the consequences you may have to face? Our people-pleasing attitudes have often been embedded in us since childhood. But as you grow older, you may realise that it actually is more burdening than ever.

A series of research studies conducted by Vanessa Bohns and colleagues demonstrated that some people, when found themselves in this type of situation, would resort to initially agreeing but then later committing unethical acts, such as telling white lies, backing out on the spot and even trying to deceive the other person. The researchers showed that they did this even though they knew it was wrong.

So this may have got you wondering: “What exactly should I do to say ‘No’ in a way  that I feel both satisfied and at ease?” That’s what today’s article is all about.

Consequences of Not Saying No

Dr Vanessa K. Bohns says in a 2016 research review that many people may agree to things – even things they do not prefer doing at all – because they don’t want to go through the discomfort of saying no. When I teach assertiveness training in my classes or to clients, I often refer them to a book entitled “I feel guilty when I say no.”

Moreover, Anhalt says, “It’s also possible that you say yes because you deeply want to help. But you forget that your ability to accommodate others isn’t an endless well.”

 The consequences of not being able to say no can be tiring. They can range from being frustrated with the other person (when they really don’t have a fault), even feeling irritated with yourself at times, and also taking on so much work or responsibility that it makes you stressed.

What is it that you’re supposed to do then? How to say no, without feeling miserable or guilty?

How to Say No?

To start with, it can hurt, irritate or frustrate the other person when you say no – making it a relatively difficult task. Secondly, if you wish to continue your relationship with the person, declining them in a wrong manner might negatively effect the relationship.

Here’s how you can say no easily, ethically and courteously…

1.    Cherish Your Time.

Learn to assess your time and evaluate your commitments as well. Only when you truly realise the extent of things you have on your plate will you effectively analyse what you need to do and when. You may be agreeing to something and therefore failing to say ‘no’ because you may believe that you will be able to fit it in your time schedule when you actually can’t. Valuing your time will help you realise that the next time someone asks you to commit your time to something, you simply might not be able to do it.

In this case, the best response is an honest one, which simply is “Sorry, I can’t right now. I have too much on my plate at the moment!”

2.    Prioritise!

Try to prioritise your responsibilities according to your preference. This tip applies in case you do have some extra time to squeeze in some commitment. The first thing you should think of is, “Do I want this time for myself, or do I want to commit myself to something?” If you wish to have some me time, then that’s that! It would be best if you declined the offer because you and your priorities should matter.

However, if you wish to do something in that spare time, see what it is that you would most want to do. What will bring you the most joy and benefit or energise you more? Work? Or simply attend time with your family and friends? If your preference is work, go for it, but cut out on the work if you plan on performing some family responsibilities, or having some self-care time. Simply put, the idea is “yourself before everything” (like the analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on first).

You could say, “I have something else on!” or “I will have to pass on this.” Associate the no with doing something good for yourself that generates good feelings for you.

3.    Practise Makes Perfect.

I know that there is some critique of this phrase and a good friend of mine says “no, practice makes permanence” so you want your practise to be effective. We have always heard that practice will contribute to development, and this case is no different. Try saying no as often as you healthily can, whenever you feel like you have to and try not to pass out on any attempt or opportunity to practice.

Repeating the same word or phrase is enough for people who might continue persuading you to bend in. Just keep rejecting, and the message will become easier for you to say and others to accept! No matter how many times they try to coax you, keep saying no. This can take a number of different orientations as well and can be used in a number of different situations. You can even practice saying no mentally in your imagination.

As Jack Kornfield says, “Through practise, gently and gradually we can collect ourselves and learn how to be more fully with what we do.”

4.    Aim: Do Not Apologise!

People, in an effort to sound polite, often start off by saying, “I am sorry….” which in most cases – can be a mistake. While we do not ask you to come off as rude or mean and ask you to keep politeness as a priority, realise that there really is nothing you have to be sorry about. You have all the rights in the world to do and spend time on things that are important for you. While you may believe that starting your phrase with an apology makes me polite – it does to some extent – but it also makes it very weak and even puts a defensive spin on the response you are offering. It again, may help if you were firm about your priorities and about valuing your time.

Remember to be very clear in your answer. Remember it has to be a straightforward ‘No’ so that the other person is well aware of your situation too! Any extra phrases in an attempt to appear polite or to apologise can confuse the other person as well, and they may even come to you with other suggestions or accommodations (like objections to be overcome).

5.    You Don’t Need to be Nice All the Time!

Remember that saying ‘yes’ all the time hurts you. While it is a virtue to be polite, and I don’t want you to let go of it, do know that making yourself available for others all the time means that they will keep coming back for you. Try and keep a set of boundaries for yourself, and make sure to stick to them.

Also, remember to make these boundaries well known to others as it may frame and prevent unnecessary approaches for your time. While it may not be true for everyone, some people might end up becoming too dependent on you, even on things they could do themselves – all because you chose not to say ‘no’ at the right time.

I would add that doing good, helping others, be a support is often good for us too, so choose what you want and what is healthiest for you.

6.    Forestall Requests.

One way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of saying ‘No’ to someone is by trying to avoid any requests in the first place. This means taking advanced action to prevent someone from asking you to commit to something. If you have been friends with someone for a while or worked in an office environment long enough to understand the pattern, then it is always too easier to sort of say ‘no’ before the request has been made.

While leaving your office or your college, simply say, “Guys, I have so much work to do, I don’t think I can do anything else”. At times simple phrases like “Everyone, I think I’ll reserve this weekend for myself only” can also send the message that you are not up for any commitment no matter what nature it is!

7.    The “I’ll Try to Get Back to You”

We realise that some people can really be difficult to deal with. No matter how much you try, they will always somehow come back with another commitment. In such cases, the best thing for you to do is to come up with an excuse. And what better excuse than “I will get back to you.” It is likely to help buy you some time too.

It is always useful to tell the person that you will give their commitment some thought and reach out to them later. This will also give you the time to think and evaluate your commitments and time to see if you really can make time for them. If you still realise that you cannot, you can put it before them this way “ I have given it some thought…” or “ I have really tried my best.. but I can’t seem to do this at the moment”.

It will not come off as rude and will demonstrate that you did at least give it some consideration.

8.    Maybe Next Time.

There may be situations where you may realise that you don’t want to close the situation and would want to actually commit to the request made by someone else. However, you find yourself too occupied to squeeze it into your schedule. In that case, the answer is to reschedule the commitment. Thus to signal the person that you may not be able to commit now but are willing to go for it the next time, you can say, ” I really want to…” or ” This seems like a really interesting opportunity…”. You could then say “… but I am already tied up. May be next time, I could do it with you”.

9.    Understand the Other Person’s Approach

People, and even at times your organisations, can be really persuasive, even manipulative in trying to coax you to do something or forcing you to eventually agree when you so desperately want to say ‘No’. This relies on Social Pressure. Remember, no matter how assertive and persuasive the other person is, there are times when you have to be selfish. In a way that serves you best.

Final Word

In conclusion, we can all realise that saying no and rejecting your friends, family, and even strangers can feel like a daunting task. And this will sometimes eventually lead you to say ‘Yes’ when you want to say ‘No’. While you are not alone in this, remember that there is always a way out if you want it and if it’ll be for your betterment. And this doesn’t make you weak or mean; It just means you know how to value yourself and prioritise what is important.

I have tried summarising a few tactics for you to help you navigate your way out of this sometimes perilous situation and say ‘No’ without having to feel bad or weird. Try implementing a few, and see how they work for you.


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