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The skill of saying no – how to do it in practice

My last post invited you to consider a range of factors that might play a role in your struggle to say no. As I outlined, understanding the bigger picture, whether it is informed by culture, society, family or personality, is crucial when considering the skill of saying no.


Considering these factors truthfully might reveal that there are a number of situations where - on balance - you are choosing to say yes. Or such a consideration might specify some caveats around your honest intention of saying no. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that a deeper reflection will show a more complex picture of your issues with saying no and will shift your position from a more passive to a more active one.


This post is for those moments when you are sure or sure enough that you actually want to say no. It provides a framework for how to go about doing this practically, and it gives some options, which may be helpful. This framework was first presented to me as part of my psychotherapy training and has proven itself useful for my clients over the years. This is why I hope it will be beneficial to you, too.


The basic skill of saying no has two key aspects to it. The first one is to be brief. Have you ever found yourself giving some lengthy explanation as to why you cannot do something, and the more you explain the less convincing it sounds? This is often what happens. The more words we use and the more ways we find to explain ourselves, the more we are watering down our own argument.


We may be trying to soften the blow, but there are better ways to do this, as I will explain below. The no needs to be heard first. And in order to achieve this, it is best delivered in a short statement that is crisp, concise and to the point.


The second key aspect of saying no is to deliver the message with confidence. We achieve this by speaking clearly and calmly and by watching out for inappropriate smiles or apologies. How often have we said no while our body language and other non-verbal cues have said yes or maybe? This is what this aspect is reminding us of. Our no is most convincing if the words we use and how we say them align.


This aspect also comes back to my previous post about the conceptual underpinnings. If I am feeling very conflicted about my no, my body or tone of voice are likely to express this. It may be hard for me to stand tall and speak confidently if I feel inferior to the other person, for example, or if saying no makes me feel bad about myself. Understanding those inner conflicts, even if some of them may not be easy to solve, will help me to manage my body language.


In addition to these two basic aspects, there are a number of refinements you may want to consider. Some of them bear the risk of watering down your no, so it is worth giving this a bit of thought. Generally speaking, I have found that these refinements seem particularly appealing to my more relationship orientated clients who are afraid of hurting others.


The first refinement is to notice your initial reaction to the request. What does your gut feeling tell you? This may not be your final decision but it is very useful to take this into account. After all, I believe that the best decisions are those where head and heart, that is our thoughts and our feelings, are most aligned. Especially when the request comes from an important person, it may be difficult for you to ‘hear yourself’ in that moment. And some people may need to literally take themselves away for a bit to be able to check in with themselves and figure out that first emotional response.


The second refinement that many of us easily overlook is to give ourselves permission to pause. All too often we feel under pressure to answer immediately when it is very feasible to ask for time and/or further details before making a decision. Especially when we are not completely sure what is being asked of us, it makes sense to seek clarification: Does it need to be done by a certain time? What support is available? Maybe we need to check our other commitments or discuss it with a colleague or our partner before we feel comfortable to agree?


Calm repetition is another refinement that is useful to bear in mind. Especially when other people are not used to receiving a no from us, they may not expect it and not fully hear it at first. This is when having a short, concise statement comes in handy. Like a swaying tree that is firmly rooted in the ground, we can calmly return to this statement and repeat it a number of times until it reaches the other. Some politicians are true experts at this and will not divert from the message they want to deliver, no matter how much they are being questioned and poked by different interviewers.


A fourth refinement is the possibility to offer an alternative. This is very much up to you, and you can feel free to take some time to consider this option. If a colleague asks you to help them on a project you may say no to helping them today but may be able to offer some time tomorrow. If a friend asks you to meet up at the weekend, you may say no as you have already made plans but could offer to arrange something for the following week. Please only offer an alternative you actually want to offer to avoid subsequent struggles of saying no further down the line.


A fifth refinement is to use empathy when delivering your no. This means describing what you assume the other person is feeling or thinking. You may say something along the lines of: 'I understand that this means a lot to you but my answer is still no. / I can see you are upset but I am unable to help you with this.' Like the second and fourth refinement, this one also bears the risk of letting your no stand less firmly. Feeling the other person's strong disappointment and expressing it may make holding on to your no a lot more difficult. At the same time, even if the other person may not receive the practical help they were looking for, having their feelings acknowledged may be very meaningful to them.


The sixth and final refinement is to put the no into context. Again, there is a danger for this to turn into a lengthy, lower impact explanation so please keep the basics in mind. However, this option has the potential to soften the blow in a more constructive way by reminding the other person of other aspects of your relationship or yourself. You might be saying something like: 'You know I am very willing to help you when I can. However, on this occasion, I need to say no.' or 'There are a lot of activities I am interested in. I just don't enjoy doing this. So, I will say no to this invitation.'


I hope that this practical discussion of saying no has given you some ideas of how you may be able to hone this important skill. With the two key aspects of brevity and confident delivery as well as the six refinements in mind, there are a number of options of how you can articulate your no. I invite you to experiment with this and find an approach that works well for you.


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