Last reviewed 14 April 2015

Busy, not enough hours in the day and under pressure — and yet we will often say “yes” when we should, and need, to say “no”. Val Moore looks at the pitfalls of agreeing to things we should refuse, and offers some strategies for learning how to respectfully say “no” to others.

The need to say “yes” is seated deep within us and stems from childhood. We learn from an early age that if we comply, we get rewarded, but if we refuse, life can get a little more difficult.

We are brought up to be nice, and are taught that to say “no” is not a nice thing to do. Couple this trait with a fear of not being liked, or of being seen as difficult or uncooperative, and we say “yes”. Even saying “no” can make us feel guilty, and we ramble on and try and explain — to excuse — what we feel is our own “bad” behaviour.

In a business environment, there can be political pressure to say yes, particularly when the “request” is made by a more senior figure.

In our personal lives, we can be driven by a sense of duty or love or compassion for another person. We say “yes” when we should say “no” but find that we just aren’t able to refuse!

There is a price to pay when we say “yes” instead of “no”. Resentment can build up and this can then manifest itself in the form of stress and anger. Those on the receiving end of the stress and anger are often those who do not deserve it and have not been the cause of the problems.

Learn how to say no

Consider why you wish to say “no” to something. It may be any one, or combination of, the following.

  • Your time is already committed elsewhere.

  • It is something you are not morally comfortable with.

  • It is not in the interest of the person asking.

  • You just plain do not want to do it.

When saying “no”, avoid giving long explanations. It can give the impression that you are not altogether sure of yourself and that you could be talked round. It could give the other person the opportunity to manipulate you; to make you feel guilty so that you end up saying “yes” and feeling resentful.

Practice saying “no” in front of a mirror. Keep your breathing low and regular as this will help the tone of your voice — shallow breathing will make the voice squeak and you will talk faster. Maintain a level gaze and a hint of a smile (not a broad grin) and say “no” — and mean it.

Some scenarios

  1. A friend asks you to babysit for them. You do not want to.

    You are tempted to explain: “well, normally I would love to (lie), but I am working then (lie).” This could get the response: “that’s okay, I can re-arrange things so you can come a bit later” or “I can re-arrange as you won’t be working on Friday”. You are in a corner, and you might either agree to something you would rather not do, or start making other excuses.

    It is better to say: “sorry, no can do. I’m much too busy at the moment.” If pressed as to why, say: “as I said, I have too much on at the moment” and change the subject. If pressed again, repeat: “as I said, I am too busy at the moment” and change the subject. They do not have any right to know why you are too busy and if you put it this way it makes it clear that your refusal counts for any day and any time in the foreseeable future.

    Sometimes called the “broken record syndrome”, the answer is just repeated in a different format until the other person gets the message. It will also be effective in the examples below.

  2. Avoiding what could be a potentially nasty situation.

    I’m not comfortable with that”. You may be uncomfortable with the people involved, the type of work, or the moral implications — this is a very respectful way to avoid a sticky situation. If asked why, simply state: “I’m just not”.

    I’ve had a few things come up unexpectedly and I need to deal with those first”. Unexpected things happen. If you are asked what these are: “just things I have to deal with”. This allows you a way out of the situation without potentially courting controversy.

  3. You would really like to help the person but do not have time now.

    Tell them the truth: “I can’t right now, but I could do it later”. Offer a later time or date. If they are not able to wait for you they will have to find someone else.

    I just don’t have any time in my diary right now” (be honest if your schedule is full — and “full” does not have to mean really full — it could be you have put some lines through some dates as you have arranged as much as you want to at the moment).

  4. Regarding something voluntary that you do — you would like to help, but not with the task suggested.

    I really don’t enjoy that kind of work.” If you do not enjoy something, then why do it, particularly when you are not being paid?

    Also, offer to help with something you find more enjoyable: “…but I'm happy to help out with another task”.

  5. In various work scenarios where you are genuinely not able to help.

    If you are truly unable to lend a hand, you should say so: “I’m in the middle of several projects and can’t spare the time.” Let people know when you have already accepted other responsibilities — no one is going to fault you for working hard.

    Unfortunately, I am just too busy with xyz for (name) to do this one justice. I think that (name) would be a great choice and would do a good job for you.” This demonstrates your concern that the task is completed and offers a suitable alternative in the shape of another colleague.

  6. When asked to do something by your boss.

    Say so if you are already working to full capacity. You could perhaps take on the task, but it would be to the detriment of things you are already doing. What priority would they like to put on the various tasks?

    • Negotiate the priorities so you can do what you are able to in the time available during the working day.

    • Ask for additional, paid time in which to do it. If it is a “one-off” for any reason, be sure to say that you will not always be able to do overtime and it cannot be taken for granted in the future.

In any situation

  • Ask for time to consider the request.

  • Do not be afraid to use “maybe” instead of yes or no — this puts the final answer further into the future.

  • Ensure you are saying yes or no for the right reasons (not because you want to get your own back for some slight!).

  • Suggest another person for the task .

  • Be true to yourself and your beliefs.