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Learn to say “No”

Dealing with rejection can be tremendously difficult, especially for people who are very persistent and stick to their goals until they have reached them. The “art” on how to deal with rejection would go beyond the scope of this article so I’ll leave it for now and might consider writing a separate article about this topic in the future. But, something that can be at times even more difficult than actually being rejected is to be the one who rejects or to be the one who has to reject.

When speaking of the powerful art to know how to say “no” and all the different ways to do so, it can be at times very helpful to simplify the basic principle that stands behind the concept of rejecting something – to see the principle just as emotionless as a robot would analyze it. So, whenever a person confronts us with a demand (request, requirement, insistence, postulation, challenge, claim, etc.) we will have to evaluate the demand on whether we can satisfy/adhere to it, like it, feel comfortable with it or not and based on this we will have to make a decision to either accept or reject it.

It’s as easy as that – but just in theory. If you like it you accept it. If you don’t like it you just say “no” and reject it. Unfortunately, if it was that simple to say “no” as in theory you wouldn’t be here and read this article, would you?

Due to the fact that we are no robots (luckily!) it is not as easy for us to make a decision based on whether we just like something or not. There will always be other factors that highly influence our decision making process, so let’s just call these factors the social component or simply the conscience, for now. In many cases, the social factors impinge upon our willingness to say “no” and convert it to a grumpy “yes, fine”, whenever we fear to hurt the other person’s feelings, do not want to disappoint this person or fear the consequences of rejecting the demand and so on. A perfect example for these situations would be when your boss asks you if you could do some extra work for him, even though you are already having a chaotic work-overload that requires you to do overtime. Would you swallow your anger and agree to do the work or would you clearly express that you will not be able to do the extra work, while risking to disappoint your boss when doing so?

In many cases, the inability to say NO can become a severe psychological problem, as we tend to forget to take care of OURSELFES and what WE really want, while simultaneously trying not to hurt others with our rejection. You see, it’s a vicious circle of being oversensitive with others, while withdrawing the attention of your own feelings and demands.

No matter how positive you label it when saying “yes” where you should have said “no” – proof of friendship, kindness, compassion or kind-heartedness – in the end it doesn’t change the fact that you have agreed to do something you absolutely didn’t wanted to do. Something that might require you to invest lots of your valuable time, lie at beloved ones or things you just get done by hook or by crook. All the hassle, just because you don’t want to give others a reason to think negatively of you or believe that they will quit the friendship/business relationship when you’re not doing everything they want. Apropos friendship, a real friend will try to get his life straight, without exploiting you and by any means; no true friend will quit the friendship with you, just because you aren’t able to do a favor in a given situation.

Back in the days when I was approximately 17 years old I was an employee and had a colleague who was a very good friend of mine. He often requested me to help him with getting things done or whenever he didn’t know how to approach a given problem/case, etc. It wasn’t a problem for me to help him wherever I could, and as he was a very good friend of mine I always agreed to help him, even if I had to put my important work aside and had to catch up on that later. Over the time, I noticed that my colleague asked me for help on very similar procedures and tasks all over again, even if I had explained it just one week before. He wasn’t just asking me out of inexperience, he was simply asking me out of laziness, as he was too lazy to write down what I told him, remember it or to create specific patterns that would help him in similar situations.

After some weeks, I started to realize that all the time I should have said “no”, but answered with a “yes”, had caused me trouble of some sort – no matter if I had to work longer, did things with dislike, couldn’t focus on my own tasks and so on. It even went so far, that the more I answered with a “yes” the more was I being utilized by my colleague – not because he had bad intentions, but simply because he was lazy and knew I would help him anyhow.

In the end, I was spending way too much time, energy and concentration on things other people should have been concerned with, rather than with focusing on myself, my own tasks and my own development. I knew that, if I wouldn’t clearly draw a line and have the courage to say NO, the time I could spend for myself would reduce itself drastically in the future.

For me, it is an essential part of my life to be able to clearly say “no”, whenever someone asks me to do something I don’t want to do by any means. I’m not rejecting others because I want to be rude or impolite, I neither want to hurt their feelings nor do I want to insult them; BUT I’m living my own life in an independent way and don’t do “hum and haw”, but clearly say NO wherever I can’t or don’t want to help. This does of course not imply that I’m going to reject my best friends appeal for help whenever they are in a problematic situation and need my help urgently, but it means that I won’t drop everything just to drive them everytime to work after missing continuously the bus.

So, to make a long story short; how can we learn to say NO and above all how to clearly say NO, how to communicate a rejection the best way?

The Manual on How to Say “No”

A) The right mindset about rejecting

Before we’re getting started with the different tips, tricks and methods on how to reject someone’s demand it is important to have the right mindset about what it really means to say “no”. I think most people associate feelings of guilt with having to reject a friend’s request, which often gets exploited and enhanced by these friends by expressing their disappointment, being angry at you and similar social manipulation tactics. However, I’ve made the experience that rejecting someone with a clear “no” doesn’t mean you are being disagreeable or even rude. It neither means that you are a terrible and unreliable friend nor that you will miss opportunities in your professional life. What it means is that you have a clear agenda in life, know that your time is very valuable and have a plan on how to spend that time throughout the day and above all, it means that you aren’t a nanny for your friends and colleagues. After all, you (should) have your own priorities, interests and requirements in life, just as everyone else has.

B) Simple ways to say “no”

In the end, it doesn’t depend on the message, but on how you deliver that message, meaning that rejecting someone is by far less important than how you reject that person’s demand.

1. The aspect of self-confidence

As I’ve already mentioned in the above, the importance of how you deliver a “no” is very important and will help you to terminate endless discussions and attempts of manipulation in the very beginning. One aspect of this communication process is the question on how confident you deliver the “no”. When you struggle with your decision or are unclear on whether to say yes or no, the opposite will recognize this and instantly refuse to accept your rejection – as it sees the opportunity to persuade you to change your mind. So, the next time someone asks you to do something you absolutely don’t want to do, tell yourself mentally: “I can’t and won’t do what he/she asks from me and I will communicate this fact clearly with certainty and confidence.”

The following exercise will help you to meet your decisions faster and more confident.

2. Meet decisions like a Samurai

Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a wise samurai of the Saga domain and narrated many of his prudent thoughts to a fellow samurai, which were finally written down in “Hagakure, the book of the Samurai”. One quotation of Yamamoto Tsunetomo in Hagakure says:

One should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. (…) With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.

What Yamamoto says, is that one should rather come to a quick decision within 20-30 seconds, rather than delaying it over and over again, until many days and weeks have passed. By taking a deep breath, while knowing that you will have to finalize a decision within the next seconds, you will train your decision-making abilities and find it easier in future situations to make a confident and final decision. So, rather than pondering for hours on what options to choose, finalize a decision and stick to it.

3. The perfect formulation

In the following you will find some helpful formulations and phrases that will help you to say “no” in many different situations. The formulations vary from very weak excuses (“I’m not certain, yet!”) up to very direct and clearly communicated “no’s” (“No, I don’t want to!”) and are arranged from weak to strong.

a) “(That’s a good idea, but) I’m not sure, yet!”

Obviously, this one is just a way for you to win some time, especially when you are struggling with the decision making process. Furthermore, you should only make use of the “that’s a good idea, but” if you truly mean it that way. But, responding with the above named formulation will not get your problem solved, as the counter-part will ask you again and again, until you met a final decision on whether to say “yes” or not.

Some other delaying tactics could be immediate changes of the subject after responding that you aren’t certain as of now to another topic you feel more comfortable with, for example by asking a question.

Conclusion:

“I’m not sure, yet” is just a delay tactic when it comes to learn how to effectively say “no” and will not help you to finish the subject once and for all. Therefore, you should only make use of it, whenever you are really struggling to come to a decision or when you didn’t found a good explanation on why you reject the demand.

How to deploy? For temporizing decisions.

b) “I’m very busy at the moment; can we discuss this in x hours/days?”

Who doesn’t know this scenario: you’re in the middle of some very important task that requires all your attention, when a colleague or friend interrupts you with a question or request for help. Normally, you would have the choice between either (harshly) rejecting them or putting your own work aside for some time in order to help them. Both of it may not be acceptable for you, especially when you really want to help this person, but cannot/won’t interrupt your work. So, why not try the above named phrase? Okay, “I’m very busy at the moment; can we discuss this in one hour” can be seen as just another delaying tactic, but it can and should be used whenever you are very committed to an important task but like the idea/request or really want to help the person that’s asking you for the favor. Rather than having to decline to do the favor you get the chance to buy some time and to get back to the person in several hours, days or weeks; whenever you aren’t that stressed and can totally focus on the question or inquiry of the opposite part.

Conclusion:

“I’m very busy at the moment; can we discuss this in x hours/days?” is a great way to show your counterpart that you are currently in a rush, but are willing to help him at a later time. This way you can come back to the person when you aren’t in the middle of important work.

When to use? In busy situations.

c) “I can’t manage that as I have to focus on important affairs.”

The above named statement has basically the same message as b) “I’m busy right now”, with the difference that you will not offer to help the other person. By telling the other person that you currently have important affairs going on you clearly communicate that you cannot help at the moment and that the person should refuse from future demands. If you want you can also add some information about the project that currently demands all your attention and how long you plan to be occupied with it.

Conclusion:

“I can’t manage that as I have to focus on important affairs”, will help you to decline the other persons request in a friendly but crystal clear way.

How to apply? As a polite but direct form of saying “no”.

d) “I’m not too confident with that. Why don’t you ask X?”

No matter if you have moral concerns with the type of work, not enough knowledge about it or know that you won’t be a helpful contributor to the completion of the task; that’s the type of answer that helps you to reject the offer effectively. Your rejection might even be understood positive when you are able to refer the other person to someone who can actually help them, or someone who can help them better than you can. The trick is to offer an alternative solution that sounds more promising than you do, which will not only help you to reject the demand without even communicating it, but it will also please the counterpart as it is one step closer to the solution for his problem.

Conclusion:

“I’m not too confident with that. Why don’t you ask X?” is a good way that allows you to refuse to help someone in a topic you don’t feel yourself comfortable at.

How to apply? As a very polite, indirect way to say “no”.

e) “No!”

The sincerest way to reject a request is to communicate it straightforward and direct with a “no”. Doing so will help you to avoid bringing up excuses and will nip further discussions in the bud. The key to this is to clearly communicate the fact that you are rejecting the request, as you will be facing endless discussions and attempts of manipulation as soon as you are struggling with your decision.

Why applying it? It is an honest and time-saving answer.

C) Dealing with manipulation

In the end, I think that it is important that you are mentally prepared that the counterpart might try to manipulate you, in the hope that you will change your opinion after a while. When you understand that aggressions, accusations or even an emotional outburst such as crying are just attempts to manipulate you, it will be by far easier for you not to dissociate yourself from your decision.

Generally speaking, it is always productive to include an understandable, reasonable and confident statement on why you are saying “no” to someone’s request, especially when meeting this person face to face.

Learn to say “NO” was brought to you by our Personality Development Blog.

Photo by Roger Quayle

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  1. Ryan Chua on Mar 18, 2011

    There are lots of ways to say no, without even uttering the word “No”. I remember seeing Jim Carey’s Movie entitled “Yes Man”. He decided to say YES to everything and in the end everything went crazy.

  2. ternty on Feb 22, 2012

    I think the bottomline of everything is building self confidence and knowing that u r developing urself. in this world u can never please everyone. I hv been having problems in saying no to pple with fear of disappoint them n now I know that I need to be focused and form my priorities right as well as my decision making process. big ups

    • Steve Mueller on Feb 23, 2012

      You’re absolutely right & great observation. You’ve summarized it perfectly!

  3. Kath on Jul 7, 2012

    I am a 45yr old female. I think this article is brilliant. For many of us the word NO was not listened to when we were young both when we said it to someone who maybe hurt us and then also in teenage years by us when a parent said it, because our understanding of the word just did not exist. How wonderful and freeing to understand the word NO at last, and how that the impact of not having understanding of the word NO on my life until now, has been clear decline. It is really interesting to become aware of this problem and to understand that is what adult choice is the ability to simply say NO when you have a feeling that you do not wish to do something and that the uncomfortable feeling in your stomach can be dealt with by a simple word – NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO – Here’s the funny bit, I want to say YES to the word NO and all its implications….

    • Steve Mueller on Jul 7, 2012

      Hi Kath, good to see that you are self-empowered! Amazing what a little word like NO can effect, right?

  4. Sean Gai on Dec 6, 2012

    I am a reader from China.

    I am lucky to read this great article. It teach me when and how to say no.

    It will my life and work easier and simpler than before. thank you, muller