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Learn to say no: How to turn things down (without feeling guilty)

It may not come naturally, but learning to say no is a crucial life skill to master.

For only being two letters long, “no” sure is difficult to say sometimes. There are countless moments in life when saying no is the best option, but the words just don’t want to come out and you end up with an overflowing schedule or nagging feelings of dread as the event approaches.

Whether it’s a fear of letting someone down, being an anxious people pleaser, or simply not feeling confident in your own judgement, saying yes to everything is actually more damaging than you might realize.

Like any other skill, learning how to say no takes some practice, but we’re here to walk you through some of the best ways to find your voice until “no” feels as natural as “yes.”

Table of contents

Why you should learn to say no

Before we get into how you can work on your “no”, you should know why it’s important. Here’s the short answer: When you can’t say “no,” you pile your plate to full and end up overwhelmed. 

Even if you know you need to start lightening your load, making that switch can be challenging. After all, if you’ve spent so long agreeing to everything and helping anyone who asks, there could be a little friction when you first start turning them down. 

It’ll be an adjustment for everyone, but it’s helpful to have a few reminders as to why you’re doing this for those moments when it feels tempting to slide back into your old ways.

1. You need space to rest and unwind

Being busy may be touted as a sign of a productive worker or living a wonderfully fulfilled life, and it certainly can be, but there’s also a danger of being at the mercy of a jam-packed calendar. When every hour of the day is accounted for and there’s no time for rest, your body will begin to shut down.

Like a car running on empty, you need space in your day for refueling to keep you going. Even a 10-15 minute break can put you in a better frame of mind and let you refocus on your priorities for the day. But finding that time can be a struggle when you agree to everything that comes your way.

2. Setting boundaries is healthy

For many of us, being helpful is a trait that goes all the way back to childhood. From being the teacher’s pet to our parents’ little helper, we’ve been conditioned to put our needs aside and assist others wherever necessary. While that’s a beneficial skill for all children to learn, the lack of balance has often meant that, as adults, we struggle to assert ourselves when it comes to protecting our own wants and needs.

Learning to say no and set boundaries, both with yourself and other people, is an important step in safeguarding your mental and physical health. If you’re not used to doing this, it can bring up uncomfortable feelings of selfishness, but that’s all part of developing this new skill. Clear boundaries are an essential feature of healthy relationships, generating mutual trust and respect between everyone involved.

3. You have more time for things you want to say “yes” to

There will always be endless demands on our time and there simply aren’t enough minutes to go around to make everyone happy. There are only 24 hours in a day and every time you say yes, you’re automatically saying no to something else. Once you realize and accept this, saying no becomes much easier.  

When you learn to say no, pockets of space begin to appear in your day, ready to fill with what you actually want to do (yes, doing nothing at all is perfectly acceptable). Like setting boundaries, it’s all about prioritizing what matters most to you and letting another door open as you firmly close one behind you.

Why is it difficult to say no?

Simply knowing that saying no is good for us doesn’t make it any easier. If the thought of rejecting someone or passing on an opportunity makes you feel a little queasy, you’re not alone. In fact, peer pressure and social influence is to blame for many of the panicked “yes” moments that we tend to find ourselves in.

There’s plenty of research to support this. In 2019, a study found that parts of the brain that control reward learning and value processing are activated when individuals make decisions that follow the majority. A little like lab rats repeating behavior when rewarded with a piece of cheese, our brains send us all the good signals when we follow along with what the group wants, which further reinforces that behavior.

Cornell University has also found that, when asked by a complete stranger to complete a task, more than half of participants would do so, even if the task was morally or ethically questionable. Study participants would make comments like, “I don’t want to get in trouble” or “this feels wrong” but still go through with the action. When it comes down to it, there’s something built into our biology that makes it almost impossible to refuse.

Scientists believe that our natural behavior is programmed to benefit the group, a leftover relic from our earliest evolutionary days when we depended on each other for minute-to-minute survival as a species. Building and maintaining relationships has always been crucial for continued progress and disagreements can significantly upset the balance of a social group. To avoid conflict and preserve harmony, we’ve become conditioned to default to “yes.”

So when we learn to say no, we’re actively working against a biological current. No wonder it feels so difficult! Add personal backgrounds into the mix and saying no can feel as foreign as speaking a different language. As with most areas of psychology, the balance between nature (our biological makeup) and nurture (how we’re raised) is a delicate one. 

Some people may be brought up to be incredibly assertive; you’ll often find this personality type as CEOs or world leaders. Saying no is almost second nature to them. But for others, being able to accommodate the needs of others is their most important role and openly challenging authority (or at least the people in control of a situation) is a sign of incompetence and rudeness. For those individuals, advocating for themselves takes years of practice and hard work, overcoming the thoughts and beliefs that were continuously reinforced. 

How can you improve saying no to people?

The best place to begin when you’re learning to say no is to first identify what your priorities are and, from there, what boundaries you want to start putting in place. It might be helpful to break these down into personal and professional buckets, especially if you find it difficult to say no in both areas of your life. 

By asking yourself the following questions around hypothetical situations, you can get a good picture of what’s most important to you:

  • If I say yes to X, what will I be saying no to?
  • Will saying yes be potentially damaging to my mental health?
  • Have I said yes to this before and regretted it?
  • Does this align with my core values and beliefs or goals?

Once you have some of these ideas in mind, you’ll be much better equipped at dealing with those situations when they come up in real life. These are always good questions to come back to if you find yourself struggling as they help to center you with your core values and let you really think about what you want your answer to be. 

Remember, it’s OK to say “can I get back to you on that?” and allow yourself some breathing space. Giving yourself permission to not jump into an immediate “yes” is a big step and is a small but mighty boundary that you’re putting in place by letting others know that they need to respect your time and needs as much as their own.

As with building any skill, saying no is going to take some practice. Start with something that doesn’t have any real impact, like saying “sorry, that day/time doesn't work for me” when scheduling an appointment or say “no, I’m fine thanks” if you’re offered a straw at a restaurant. It might seem inconsequential, but you’re training your mental muscles and learning to tune into how “no” feels. 

What is the most polite way to say no?

Once you’ve decided that your answer is definitely going to be no, what’s the best way to deliver that message? As we’ve seen, even the science indicates that it’s going to be a little uncomfortable and potentially awkward, but there are plenty of ways that you can let someone down gently.

1. Show your gratitude

Start with the positives! This is especially useful in situations where the person asking you for something is a close friend or relative, or has specifically chosen you for the task. Saying no will potentially make you feel a little guilty, so showing sincere thanks will help to soften the blow.

Phrases like “thank you so much for thinking of me” or “I really appreciate you asking me” before you turn someone down is a good way to make them feel appreciated and understand that your no isn’t necessarily personal. In most cases, they’ll assume that you don’t have time in your schedule or can’t work on their request for some other small and non-malicious reason.

2. Be clear and upfront

If you can, decide on areas that are “hard no’s”, where nothing can shake you from your position. This helps to firmly establish boundaries with others and it’s very likely that they won’t ask you more than a couple of times if your answer is always no. It also gives you more confidence in your decision, which is essential when you’re still practicing how to say no.

Take that confidence and run with it into all of your yes or no situations. After all, no one likes an unclear answer that’s wrapped up in “well, maybe I could…” or an “I’m not sure” without a time limit. Asking to check your schedule is fine, but you do actually have to get back to them!

By being upfront with your no, you leave no room for confusion when it comes to what you’re saying. It’s up to you if you think the situation calls for an explanation or not, but try to keep it short if you do give a reason why. 

3. Offer an alternative option

For the people-pleasers among you, offering a different solution should be right in your comfort zone. It’s an ideal situation–you get to practice saying no and free up your time for something else, all while still helping the person who came to you with the request. It’s a win-win. 

When your no is based on a scheduling issue, offer an alternative date in the near future that works for you, especially if you’d be open to that opportunity again. You don’t have to get into endless amounts of detail, but throwing in a “Can we rain check that for another night? This week won’t work for me but I’d be happy to help next time” will keep any tension at bay. While it may be too late for the person asking, you’ve at least tried to help.

If your no is for another reason though, there are still plenty of alternatives that you can suggest. In professional situations, suggest other resources that your team could use in your absence or perhaps you know of a colleague who would love to help on a project that you need to turn down. Throw their name into the ring, particularly if they’re a junior employee or someone who is often overlooked. Not only will they be incredibly grateful for the opportunity, but your boss or other coworkers still have help when they need it. 

Offering alternatives may feel like the easy way out, but it lets you off the hook while making sure that the person asking isn’t left high and dry. In most cases, it’s the perfect solution.

Free up your time and learn to say no 

Becoming comfortable with saying no after years of enthusiastic “yes, absolutely, of course!” answers is a challenge, but it’s worth the benefits that quickly follow. 

Once you know and understand the basics behind your feelings, you’ll soon realize that it’s possible to retrain your mind to focus on what matters most to you and take the necessary steps to protect your personal boundaries.

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