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how to say no

written by Karen Field

If you find it difficult to say NO, you probably spend a lot of your time doing things for other people that you would really prefer not to do. This often leads to a gradual build up of resentment and frustration that may poison friendships and relationships. You probably also feel that you have little control over your time and your life in general. It is rather like being flooded by water and not being able to turn off the tap. Saying YES to the demands of others when you would rather say NO can create stress and tension in your body, which often brings about physical symptoms such as headaches. Saying NO is the equivalent of turning off the tap and stopping the flow of external demands or stressors. It puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you greater control over your life and time. Saying NO directly and openly also helps boost your self-esteem.

People who have difficulty saying NO often share a number of key beliefs. These might include: Nice people do things for others – to say NO would be rude and selfish; They are more important than me, so I can’t refuse; If I say NO they will be hurt, angry, or offended and they won’t like me any more; or need to feel needed, to be busy, involved, and feel important. If you hold these beliefs you need to identify and challenge them or you will be overloaded.

The inability to say NO often stems from two fundamental thinking errors. Firstly, you may be confusing rejecting a request with rejecting the person. There is a big difference: rejecting a request does not mean rejecting the person who made it. Secondly, you may tend to overestimate the difficulty that the other person will have in accepting the refusal. Most people are happy to accept an honest NO if it is expressed appropriately. Very often it helps deepen a relationship, as when you are honest, it frees the other person to express their feelings and enables them to ask for a favour again without resentment.

You can expect the first time you say NO to be the hardest. However, with practice, it will eventually become second nature. Different situations naturally demand a variety of responses, and it is helpful to be aware of a range of techniques of saying NO that you can match to a particular event. Very often, the way you are asked to do something can affect the style of your response and you should learn to recognize the tone of the request. For example, a persistent salesperson will receive a different response from a friend in genuine need of help.

How to say NO and mean it

BE BRIEF: keep your reply short and to the point and avoid long rambling justifications

BE POLITE: acknowledge the person making the request in your response eg. No. I’m sorry I can’t make lunch on Tuesday, but thank you for asking me.

KEEP CONTROL: soften the abruptness of a direct no by remaining calm and replying to the request slowly and with warmth.

BE HONEST: making a simple statement like, I’m finding this difficult, may help you to express difficult feelings honestly and openly.

SAY NO AND GO: people may interpret lingering as uncertainty, which may cause confusion.

PRACTISE: act out in front of a mirror what you might say and do in a situation where you would like to say no.

Six techniques for saying no

SIMPLE DIRECT NO: The aim here is to say no without apologizing. The other person has the problem, and you must not allow them to pass it on to you. A direct no is forceful and can be effective with aggressive salespeople.
      eg. No. No, I prefer not to.

RAINCHECK NO: This is the way to say no to the present request, without refusing it. This is not a definite no and could be a prelude to negotiation. Use this technique only if you can genuinely fulfill the request later.
      eg. I can’t post the letters tonight, but I can go in the morning.

REFLECTING NO: This technique involves reflecting back the content and feeling of the request, and adding your assertive refusal at the end. This is a firm and final way of saying no that allows no room for further negotiation.
      eg. I know the letters are urgent, but I can’t go to the post office tonight.

ENQUIRING NO: This is not a definite no and is genuine invitation to open up negotiation. You could use this technique if you want to do what is being asked of you, but the timing does not suit you.
      eg. Is there any other time you would like me to go.

REASONED NO: This method gives very briefly the genuine reason for the refusal. You might use this method of refusal if you do not want to offend, but have a genuine, reason for refusing. It does not open up further negotiation.
      eg. I can’t post the letters tonight, because I’m meeting a friend.

BROKEN RECORD NO: This method involves repeating a simple statement of refusal over and over again. This is a good method to use with someone who is persistent.
      eg. No, I can’t go to the post office.
           Oh, please, the letters have to go this evening.
           No, I can’t go to the post office.

I have developed this article from a workshop handout on which the original author was not referenced. I extend my gratitude to that writer for these ideas which I have used to help many clients develop their assertiveness.

Karen Field is a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland » more details

Article posted 6 April 2007