In life, you have to say no a whole lotta times.
I know it's not easy. In fact, sometimes it can be so tough to say no that you end up giving in and just saying yes. It's human nature - we want to be agreeable, we want to be liked, and we want to be kind.
So how do you say no, no, no all the time without being (or feeling like) a jerk? Here’s the short version: just don’t be a jerk. You have every right to say no without feeling guilty, and as long as you don’t do it in a nasty way, you’re not a jerk. Plain and simple. Here's a great tip:
And if you're not saying no to most things, lemme tell ya: you're not doing yourself any favours. In a world where everything is finite, you should be prioritising like crazy. Saying yes to everything is the fastest way to burn out. But I'm not here to tell you why you need to say no (that's for another article) – I’ll assume you're here because you want to know how to say it. And that's a whole other story. The good news is that there are many ways to say no (word on the street is that there are at least 49). So without further ado, let's get into it:
Not, ‘Not at this time’, not ‘I don’t think so’, not ‘I’m not sure’, not ‘Maybe next time’. The word NO is a powerful thing. Use it if you are absolutely, unequivocally sure that there is no other answer. And don't apologise for saying it. If need be, practise saying the word until it loses its power over you.
This goes for family, friends, or even your boss. You don’t have to have an elaborately fabricated ruse – just say you don’t want to. If you don’t want to go to an event because you’ve had a rough week and you’d rather sit in bed watching Netflix – then say so. Don’t invent an ailing grandmother because you think it makes your excuse more palatable.
In some cases, it’s best not to elaborate. If you justify your ‘no’ too much, it can seem like you’re lying – or worse still, it can allow the asker to find a workaround to try and make you say yes.
Sometimes people don’t respect boundaries, or are used to people caving if they ask again. Just because someone is persistent, doesn't mean you have to give in. Smile politely, and say no a second time, just more firmly than the first.
Research has shown that using the word ‘because’ makes people agree with you (even if the reason you give them is absolute rubbish). So instead of just saying, 'Unfortunately I won't be able to help you plan our team building event', try adding a reason (however trivial) to help your refusal go down more easily.
You can do this as you walk away, too. This works especially well for people giving out flyers or trying to guilt you into signing up for something.
It helps to imagine that you are the person in control of the situation (mind over matter – it’s a powerful thang.) Make eye contact and speak clearly. Don’t mumble your no, mmmkay? This is extremely helpful if you feel that you are being taken advantage of.
We’re hardwired to want to reciprocate when someone gives us something. So if you take that cheese sample at the supermarket and the nice lady starts convincing you to buy it, you’re far more likely to say yes than if you hadn’t accepted the sample in the first place.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying yes because other people are saying yes. Don’t do it.
What will you lose by giving in? Time? Money? Health? Nothing comes for free.
It makes you realise how easily even the smartest among us can get fooled into saying yes. Don’t be conned.
Your intuition will seldom lead you astray. If it doesn’t ‘feel’ right, listen to your instincts – and say no.
This can be particularly useful in a work setting, when you don't want to be seen as the person who says no all the time. If you're too busy to take on a task that you might want to do in the future, you can say something along the lines of, ‘I won’t be able to help you with the Field account this time around, but I’m happy to take a look next month when my schedule is less hectic’.
If you want to say no to something that you know someone else might want to say yes to, feel free to pass on that information. 'I'm afraid that I won't have time to contribute to the bake sale this year, but I know Amanda loves baking - perhaps you could ask her?' is a good example. Resist the temptation to use this as an excuse to throw people you don’t like under the bus, or you will (rightly) be perceived as a jerk.
If you’re willing to meet halfway, this is the time to negotiate. It’ll allow you to accommodate the request without saying an outright no. This can include reducing the size of the task, asking for a longer deadline or sharing the load with another person.
There’s no point in making someone wait for an answer if you know that your answer will be no. Procrastination is a terrible thing – don’t say ‘I’ll think about it’ if you won’t.
Just because you said yes once doesn’t mean that you’re stuck saying yes until the end of time.
The more you practice, the less terrifying it will become. Start saying no to anything that doesn’t add value to your life.
While saying ‘Sorry, I can’t’ will certainly soften your message and make it more polite, it will also dilute it. Here’s another way to say the same thing ‘It’s a shame – I’d love to help but I’m already committed to [X thing]. Best of luck!’
Often we’ll say yes to things that really aren’t a priority because you don’t want people to think you’re a jerk. Guess what? Some people will think you’re a jerk anyway, no matter how nice you really are. So stop worrying about what people think, and just say no already.
When you get good at saying no, you can probably start pre-emptively saying no to asks before they come. Think that your aunt is going to invite you to her Tupperware party? Tell her that you’re broke.
If you know someone who is always asking for favours, without doing much for you in return, try to avoid them, particularly at times when you know they will be in an asking mood.
Normally I’m a huge advocate of the truth, but in some cases, you might need to get a little creative with your no. For example, if you know that your grandmother is going to try and push her Anzac biscuits on you when you visit, feel free to tell her that the doctor has told you to avoid sugar for a while if you don’t want to hurt her feelings. If your grandmother’s a tough cookie (pardon the pun) feel free to use #2.
You should only exercise this one if you know for sure that you’ll actually consider something later (otherwise, see #17). Let’s say that you’d love to help walk your neighbour’s dog once a week, but not the week before you're leaving for a 2-month trip to Guatemala. Simple – ask your neighbour to check with you again when you’re back. And when you're at work, unless it's urgent, don't drop everything to attend to the newest task on your list – just say, 'Sure thing, I'll get onto that as soon as I'm finished with this project.'
Feel free to use this classic rejection line if you feel that the product/idea/person/occasion is right for someone, but that someone isn’t you. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that something isn’t the right fit for you.
Turn the above axiom on its head, and don’t be afraid to tell people when it’s a hard no, aka ‘Maybe…when pigs fly’. So if you’re a vegetarian, don’t let your great-aunt make you try ‘just a little bite’ of her beef casserole – tell her, ‘No thanks, Aunt Maggie – you know I’m a vegetarian so I will never try it.’ Feel free to draw a line in the sand where you need to. Another example is, ‘As a rule, I don’t donate money to political parties’. If you stick to your guns, people will learn to respect your boundaries.
Sometimes validation is all the other person needs. Saying something like, ‘I know that sucks – but I can’t, I’m sorry.’
Need permission to say no just because you don’t want to? Permission granted.
If a friend asks to borrow money, feel free to say something like ‘I’m not comfortable with lending money to people, sorry.’
In some cases, you might have to be a little softer in your approach. Imagine the nicest parking inspector in the world. Even though you tell her that you’re only a few minutes late, what's she gonna say? Probably something along the lines of ‘I wish I could, but I’ve already written the ticket’. Adopt a similar approach. Here’s another example: ‘I wish I could help with your project, but I’m swamped this week’.
Sometimes this is literally all you’ll have to say. Or you can add #31 to the mix if you want to soften the blow. This is what to say if you want to say that you’re grateful to be asked, but x isn’t your thing.
Shaking your head, raising your eyebrows – even rolling your eyes can work in the right setting. Regardless, use powerful body language to show that you mean business, even as you decline something graciously.
I would leave this as a very last resort, because you do run the risk of being barraged later. You’re only postponing the inevitable, but if it helps, you can say ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘I’ll check my calendar…let me get back to you.’
Sometimes you might need to acknowledge that it’s a big deal that a person asked you to do something. This could be useful if someone asks you to model for them, or offers you a promotion that you don’t want.
Save this for the times when you want to say yes, but really think you should say no (possibly to be polite). So when your colleague (whose boyfriend happens to be a pastry chef) offers you some of her birthday cake, use this. It’s like magic…say it and the other person is likely to say, ‘Oh, go on! Just have it!’
This needs to be used sparingly, and probably only with friends. So if you sleep with a Hello Kitty night light on, and a friend-of-a-friend is invites you to a screening of The Horror III, saying ‘Oh heeeeeell no! I’ll never sleep again!’ is a safe bet.
This works for children and pesky, charming salespeople. Again, the key is to be friendly but firm.
This is a gentle way of saying no, and can be really useful when someone asks you something akin to ‘Does this shade of neon orange suit me?’ Instead of being a jerk and using a blunt #37, try saying ‘It’s not the best colour on you – let’s look at this navy blazer instead!’
So this is the only one that can (kind of) make you sound like a jerk, so use it wisely. I would save this for moments when someone asks you to work for free, or insults you in some other way.
Acknowledging another person’s feelings is important, but certainly makes this a ‘no’ on the softer end of the spectrum. So if someone is expecting you to do something but you aren’t going to do it, say no, followed by the above gem.
Sometimes you’re gonna have to say no when you’ve said yes before – and this can be tricky. The best way to get around this (even if you need to harness the power of #24) is to affirm that while you might have enjoyed it the last time, you may not this time around. ‘While I loved the opportunity to present to the CEO, you know that public speaking isn’t really my forte, so I won’t do it this quarter.’
If your boss hands you yet another project that you don’t have time for, and won’t take no for an answer, ask what you can let go of. ‘That sounds really interesting, and I’d be happy to do it – but that means I won’t be able to submit the report by Friday. So let me know what you want me to prioritise.’
This is good for cold callers – ‘Thanks but I’m good with my current mobile plan. Please remove me from your call list. Cheers!’ is good enough.
If your well-meaning sister-in-law wants to throw you a 30th birthday party, but you’d rather just have a casual lunch with your friends and family, appreciate the gesture while refusing it. ‘Janet, that’s so lovely of you! But I’ve already planned to have a beach day and a picnic – I’ll be sending out invites next week.’
Depending on what you do for a living (e.g. if you’re a doctor/plumber/lawyer/mechanic/accountant), any of these can be useful: don’t put your mobile phone number on your business card. Don’t give out your number to anyone except close friends and family. Encourage people to text you rather than leaving you voicemail messages. Reduce the number of Facebook ‘friends’ you have.
This is good for a business setting. Had a request to recommend an intern who you think should still work at Baker’s Delight instead of a law firm? I’ve got your back: ‘Hey Ellen, thanks for thinking of me! Unfortunately I don’t think I’m the best person to write your recommendation because I haven’t spent enough time seeing you write briefs, which seems like an integral part of this role. Good luck in your job search!’
Possible and impossible are magical words. If you say, ‘That’s just not possible’ with conviction, you probably won’t need to say anything else.
If someone asks you to do something major – I’m talking about something akin to becoming their child’s godparent or ‘saying a few words’ at their wedding – just saying no will make you sound like an absolute jerk, so you have to tread lightly. Here’s a good exit strategy: ‘Charlotte, that’s such an honour, and I feel privileged to have been asked. However, because [insert non-negotiable reason here, e.g. I’m so terrified of public speaking; I’ve been known to faint], I wouldn’t be able to give this important task/role the time and effort it deserves, and I don’t want to let you down. Would you consider asking Fatima instead?’