How to Say No

How to Say No

Most of us have a hard time saying no, especially to close friends or family members. For some, it’s almost impossible. Like everything else in life, saying no is a skill and perhaps one of the more important we need to master. The ability to say no, when we don’t want to say yes, is liberating and validating. It can boost our productivity, improve important relationships and engender a satisfying calmness. And, if we are unable to prioritize our own life, someone else usually does.

Saying no is considered a trait of the highly successful. Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and philanthropist, tells us “really successful people say no to almost everything.” To paraphrase, he adds: unless you can say no, others will set your life agenda. Steve Jobs said “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on what is really important.” And the American humorist Josh Billings advised that “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” (This counsel, of course, does not apply to those who say no to everything – a topic I cover off in The Game of Life.)

I firmly believe, and have often said, that we are the sole architects of our happiness and our discontent. The continuous subordination of one’s legitimate needs to others only fosters remorse, self-loathing and mental trauma. No one can or will protect our interests or our time as vigilantly as we can. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help others in need whenever possible. But we cannot adequately serve the interests of others if we are incapable of attending to ours first. During flight, the number one survival rule is to put on your oxygen mask before you assist others.

Why do we struggle to say no when we really don’t want to? The reasons are many. As children, we were told saying no is rude, egocentric or offensive. We don’t really like to disappoint others because we’d rather they like us. Nor do we want to appear selfish; most genuinely desire to be helpful. We also fear that, by saying no, we might lose out on opportunities. And some people are just natural victims – they more easily succumb to bullying and to emotional blackmailers who prey on their inability to deal with conflict. These are the ones most likely to capitulate when they’d rather decline.

People wrongly assume that no equates to personal rejection when it’s no more than opposition to bad ideas or difficult requests. To avoid that inference, it’s critical to learn how to say no effectively as well as respectfully. As for how others may feel about hearing our no, we are not responsible for how they feel. Nor can we ever control what they might think of us. Being mindful of our needs is not being selfish; it’s essential to preserve our self-esteem. Living a full and rewarding life of purpose, as we define it, does not require surrendering to the needs of others.

Altruism is pleasing and honourable but at what cost to self-determination? We only have so much time, money and attention to share with others. The reality is we can’t do everything we would like to do. There will always be those who need our help but we are not the ones to decide how they choose to live their lives or solve their problems. A wise person is prudent in the use of her resources and the protection of her aspirations. Saying yes to one thing is saying no to something else. The quality of our existence is entirely a consequence of the choices we make for ourselves.

Like all life skills, practice makes us better. Start with small, low-risk nos and progress as your confidence grows. Discover as well the power of saying no to yourself when faced by temptations you know will negatively impact your productivity, resources or peace of mind. If you do want to be helpful, offer an alternative as an act of goodwill. For example, you might suggest they approach others who could assist because they’re better qualified than are you.

Say no openly, honestly, directly and courteously. In my Conflict course, I tell my students to embrace the BIFF formula – brief, informative, firm and friendly. Never qualify a no with a mixed message that allows others to infer what they wish you to do – your waffling will only be interpreted as indecision. Equivocation never pacifies those who ask. Saying “I’ll think about it” when you really don’t want to say yes only energizes their hope of agreement. Never offer an excuse for having to say no – it’s disingenuous. It paints you into a corner and opens the door to the expectation of accommodation. No is a complete sentence; explaining it dilutes its potency.

When necessary, give a reason that validates your no. In Negotiating, I advise that anyone can disagree with your number but no one can take issue with your reason for suggesting it. Research says that giving a reason, regardless of its validity, increases compliance by about 50%. If you think your no will be perceived as offensive or rude, just say “I can’t” or “I don’t want to” instead. Then tell them why.

It’s understandable that you don’t wish to displease close friends, family members, co-workers or bosses. When these encounters arise, I advise the value of a repertoire of “magical responses” perfected over the years. For example: “Thank you for asking. While it’s not something I’d choose to do, or want to do, please know how pleased (or honoured) I am that you’ve asked me.” Should they ask again – “Oh, c’mon; why not?” or “Please, we really need you” – respond with a sincere smile: “I’d just rather not, but thank you for asking.”

Inevitably, you’ll encounter those who won’t take no for an answer, who will persist and, in some cases, cajole, intimidate or humiliate. Some people are pushy by nature but their determination has very little to do with your basic human right to make satisfying choices. Be resolute: respond assertively and courteously, not aggressively. Say “Thanks for considering me … sorry, I’m not going to change my mind.

Learning how to say no without guilt or discomfort is overcoming the notion that we are responsible for how others may feel. It’s realizing our priorities and aspirations are every bit as legitimate as theirs. Acknowledging and communicating our innate value and uniqueness is an act of courage that affirms our self-worth as well as our credibility. We are not obligated to appease the unrealistic expectations of others. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’ll never live the life to which you aspire.