It can be very hard to say “no” to people. It seems like it should be an easy thing to do; someone asks something of you, you want to say “no,” but something stops you from actually letting the word out, or even speaking a comparable, more gentle variation. It’s possible you end up either saying “yes” when you don’t really want to, or you may outright lie. But saying “no” is actually quite a necessary and healthy skill to have.
What makes it so difficult to say “no”?
The answer can vary among people and situations, but saying “no” involves the risk of letting someone down and either hurting their feelings, or causing some sort of backlash that may hurt ourselves. The protector inside of us wants to keep a person from experiencing negative feelings, especially if we’re the supposed cause of their hurt feelings. It’s possible we were raised in situations where protecting a parent or sibling from their feelings was second nature — for example, saying “no” may have been seen as disobedient, causing them upset and causing us some form of punishment (being yelled at, receiving the silent treatment, being hit, etc.).
In another scenario, it’s possible that saying “no” to people caused us to be judged as selfish, unwilling, or uncaring, resulting in people turning away from us.
Whatever the past may entail, now when avoiding saying “no”, we’re not just protecting the person who’s asking, but we’re protecting ourselves from a form of internalized punishment. Simply said, saying “no” causes anxiety because we’ve learned it could somehow come back to hurt us, whether practically or emotionally.
Effectively Saying “No”
As with most areas of communication, it’s not necessarily what you say, it’s how you say it. There are effective and ineffective ways to say “no.” For example — saying “yes” (when want to say “no”), or lying would be considered unhealthy ways of saying “no.” Although some of us have become skilled and convincing at lying to avoid saying “no,” this is an unhealthy and ineffective form of communication. Lying builds walls, distrust, and disrespect between you and the other person, which ultimately eats at the quality of relationships with others.
Here are some tricks for effectively say “no” to people:
1. Understand why
When saying “no,” there’s always a reason behind it. The question to ask is, “Why am I saying ‘no’?” If we understand the reason, it makes it easier to honestly and effectively communicate. When we say “no” and are not aware of the reason for it (aside from knowing we don’t want to do something), this creates the environment for hurt feelings on their side and guilt on our side.
2. Before getting to “no,” say “I’d like to…”
Before saying “no,” it’s nice to genuinely communicate that you’d like to be able to say “yes”. — “I’d like to run this errand for you, however I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed today and I don’t feel I have the capacity to committing to this right now.”
3. Limit yourself to ONE reason (the “why” from above) —
Why just one reason? Doesn’t a list of several excuses put us more in the clear? Not at all. More than one reason starts to look like, “I don’t want to, but I’m not going to say that. I’m going to insult your intelligence instead.” This communicates dishonesty and distrust. The key here is to make sure that the reason we use is truthful. People often pick up subtle lies and excuses much easier than we’d like to believe.
4. Bring an Alternative
An effective way of saying “no” is to do so while saying “yes” to something else. “I would like to spend time with you on Saturday, but I’m really craving some alone time. Let’s plan another day to hang out.”
5. Be open to Influence
It’s good to be able to effectively say “no” when we need to, but don’t aim to automatically avoid “yes.” Being true to ourselves is important, but it is also okay to be influenced by those who are important to you. Maybe at first you want to say “no” to something but then decide that the request is something you can handle or might find worthwhile, even if what you’re saying “yes” to is more for them than you. Before saying “no,” it can be helpful to first see if the “yes” is more possible than you may have realized at first.
It’s helpful to remember that you can’t protect people from their own feelings. Saying “no” effectively can still cause momentary disappointment for the other person, as there’s only so much that is in your control. If you find yourself chronically worried about pleasing or disappointing others, this may be something worth addressing in therapy so it doesn’t become an obstacle in your life.