How to Say No

There are times in our everyday lives when we want to say “no” to others for the demands on our time, but we end up saying “yes” instead. There are a few reasons that we do this.

As humans, we have evolved over millions of years and naturally fit into a society, which is a term called normative conformity. Any time we try to stand out from the group, we face internal resistance in the form of external social pressure. This could be our fear by way of coming across as socially awkward. Our natural inclination is to fit into the group as much as possible and to avoid any social awkwardness that would come from saying “no”. We feel this societal pressure because we are violating the normative conformity that we as humans have been accustomed to for so long.

We fear that by saying “no”, we would disappoint or anger others. We fear that we would come across as seemingly rude or ungrateful or that we would be perceived negatively in the minds of others.

Another reason we find it hard to say “no” to others is that we lack the internal clarity about our lives and where we are headed. We either don’t know (or have forgotten) what matters most to us. It is only hard to say “no” to things when we don’t have clarity about our life and “our priorities“. When we have internal clarity about our lives, making decisions becomes easy in the moment.

When we say “yes” under social pressure, we immediately regret it, even though it was our choice to begin with. When we say “yes” to others (even when we want to say “no”), this is what happens:

  • When we say “yes” to others (without thinking), we think we might be helping others with their cause, but we forget that we are doing so at our expense. Saying “yes” would violate the “oxygen-mask” principle, which states that we can’t help others until we help ourselves first. That relationship ends up being a Lose-Win for us.

  • We think we are helping others by saying “yes” to them, and while they may like us in the short-term, the truth is that we will lose respect with them in the long-term. Not only that, we will ultimately resent them and ourselves for the choices we made, neither of which is a healthy state of being.

  • Another problem with saying “yes” all the time is that, by doing so, we are teaching others how to behave with us. They keep learning through our behavior that it’s okay for them to approach us with requests because we are likely to accept. What we do next is we keep resenting them for the choices we make.

There is only so much we can do in this life. If we said “yes” to every request made of us, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything. We would simply be responding to others’ requests whether they were in our best interests or not. And that’s no way to live.

We cannot do it all (even if we wanted to). We can either choose to do a few things better or do many things poorly, so we must choose carefully. Any time we say “yes” to something, we are implicitly saying “no” to something else (opportunity cost).

Of course, the point is not to say “no” to all requests; the point is to say “no” to all things except for those things that really matter. Life is short and our attention is finite. We say “no” to others especially when their agenda doesn’t overlap with our own.

Those who say “yes” only to the things that really matter are the ones who lead and gain respect of others. In other words, they are effective because they say “no”.

When we say “no” to others, there are consequences.

For instance, if you’re in an environment where you have always said “yes” to others’ requests (regardless of whether those requests overlapped with your agenda or not), you’re bound to face some pushback from them when you start saying “no”. You can’t blame them for this resistance either because this is what you’ve always “taught” them. They’ve grown accustomed to hearing “yes” from you all the time, so now you will have to help them unlearn. Remember, we teach others through our behavior.

When we say “no” to others, we risk coming across as being socially awkward, impolite and even seemingly ungrateful. Others might get angry and/or disappointed with us, but one thing is certain that even though they may be disappointed initially (because you denied their request), they will almost always respect you later. When we muster up the courage and say “no”, we are giving up popularity in the short-term for respect in the long-term.

We all struggle with saying “no” to some extent, and it’s something we can all get better at. Here are some strategies for helping you do just that:

Unless we know ourselves, where we are headed, and what our commitments are based on that vision, we are not in a position to evaluate requests from others for the demands on our time. It starts with having clarity about our lives. That means starting with the end in mind, then having (and maintaining) focus on those essential things as much as possible.

Understand that we can only do a few things better, so we must always prioritize ourselves. Call it healthy selfishness. The fact is that we can’t help others unless we help ourselves first. We would be doing a disservice to them and to ourselves. Not only that, even if we said “yes” in those instances, we will only end up doing a poor job because we are not serving ourselves first.

Of course, prioritizing oneself requires tremendous proaction on one’s part. It means setting boundaries between our personal and work life. It means creating “fences” in advance to block out requests from others so that you’re “considering” fewer requests instead of “saying no” more often. This in turn helps reduce decision fatigue. The fewer requests we get, the less decisions we have to make, and the higher the quality of the decisions we do make.

Saying “no” to things becomes easier only when we know what we have said “yes” to. When we begin with an end in mind, we know what is important to us and what is not. We know the relationships and results that we value in life, and having that clarity makes it easy to say “no”.

After we have clarity about our life’s vision and the commitments that follow that, here is how we can evaluate requests from others for our time.

Any time you get a request for demands on your time, remind yourself that everyone is selling something. Ask yourself if it overlaps with your agenda in terms of having the relationships and results you want. And, if so, how full is your plate right now? Given it fits your agenda, do you have room to take on this commitment now or are you simply biting off more than you can chew? When the case is the latter, consider putting it on your back burner. Of course, when a request doesn’t overlap with your agenda, you can say “no” (more on that below).

When evaluating a request, try to separate the decision from the relationship you have with that person. The relationship should have no bearing on the decision you make. In other words, don’t let your relationships come in the way of evaluating requests. This requires understanding that denying a request is not the same as denying the person/relationship. Taking a pause in that moment can help you be more objective in terms of evaluating the request. Once we separate the decision from the relationship, then we can make a clear decision and separately find the courage and the sensitivity to say “no”.

As Hemingway once said:

Courage is grace under pressure.

Often times, we get requests from others like, “Hey, let’s catch up sometime”, and we say “yes” to those requests without thinking about it and without actually committing to it. Here, the response to the request is as vague as the request itself. Even when we want to respond with a clear “no”, we give a vague “yes”. When we do the latter, we never end up seeing that person for that invitation, if you can even call it that.

Any time you get a request wherein you feel reluctant to say “yes”, and want to think more about, tell them that you’ll get back to them. This gives you time to evaluate their request more objectively and gives you more time to frame your response, so to speak.

Here are some more tips for saying “no”. Practicing all of them together won’t work. Instead, pick one to fit your situation:

  • Learn to say “no” gracefully without giving any excuses. “Sorry, I’ll have to pass on that.” Then move on.

  • When someone makes a request on the phone or in person, and if it’s something you want to do, simply ask them to send you an email. The point being, if they want you to do something, they will have to send an email. How else would you remember to do it? You wouldn’t. More importantly, it forces them to think about if it’s something they actually want you to do. If so, the onus is on them to take the initiative, be proactive about it, and take the next action.

  • Sometimes, saying “no” means “not right now” because your plate is full, in which case you communicate the same to others. Tell them that you are interested in doing this, but you just don’t have the bandwidth to do it right now.

  • When a colleague at work wants you to do something, simply ask them that given your current commitments, which of those would they like you to deprioritize so you can prioritize their request (because you can only do so much). This will force them to think twice about making their request a priority. More importantly, it helps keep your workload at a reasonable level.

  • Evaluate requests by saying “yes” slowly and “no” quickly. Pause more. Think of it as a “hire slow, fire fast”. If it’s worth saying “yes” to, trust that it’ll come back to you.

  • Email is a great tool to start practicing your “no” responses. One reason is that it helps reduce the fear of coming across as socially awkward that might potentially arise from an in-person interaction.

  • Always respond to a request by first thanking others for thinking of you (if it was an invitation, for instance). Then, you can politely decline the invitation.

  • Never apologize for your “no” (especially true with women). We tend to say “yes” more and apologize more as well, and we tend to show a “feeling guilty” face when declining a request. Stop doing that. When we show that face, we’re actually doing neither. We neither feel any guilt in that moment nor do we feel apologetic. Instead, state your “no” kindly, firmly, and diplomatically.

  • Get over the guilt of saying “no”, be clear, avoid giving false hope, and don’t say “yes” when you mean “no”. Candor and communication can go a long way without the emotional component.

Understand that saying “no” to others’ requests is not just about right now. How we respond to others now will determine the kind of requests we get in the future. In other words, we teach others how to “behave” with us.

When we are faced with a request from others (that we want to say “no” to), either we say “no” and regret it for a short while, or we say “yes” and regret forever. The latter will produce bitterness and resentment towards the other person as well as toward oneself.

Saying no can often be difficult. We don’t decline a request because we fear that we might disappoint the other person. We might even feel some discomfort to the point of feeling guilty. We don’t want to let them down by saying “no” to them. We are worried that we might end up damaging the relationship, but these emotions mess up our clarity. We forget that the negative effects of not saying “no” are far greater. Either we can say “no” and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say “yes” and regret it later. The choice is yours.

Saying “no” requires courage, grace, and assertiveness. It means having clarity about our lives and maintaining focus on things that we deemed essential to us as part of doing what we said. Only when we have a reference point from which to evaluate is it possible to evaluate requests from others.

Unless we learn and practice saying “no” comfortably without any pressure, we will find ourselves living reactively and always trading respect for popularity, and that’s not a healthy way to live.

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