Saying no: How to nicely say no without feeling badly about it

Saying ‘no’ can be hard. But saying ‘yes’ to everything can lead to overcommitment and resentment.

So how can we say ‘no’ more often, but without hurting people’s feelings? Here are some must-have, guilt-free strategies for saying no to keep in your back pocket for the next time you feel like the world is asking too much of you.

Why saying no can be so hard

Is your to-do list so long that you can’t even remember what’s on it? If so, it might be high time to learn the art of saying no

Is your to-do list so long that you can’t even remember what’s on it? If so, it might be high time to learn the art of saying no.

All humans feel a fundamental need for belonging and social connection. Saying ‘no’ can feel threatening to that feeling of connectedness and our relationships. What if the person asking for help takes our rejection too personally?

Unfortunately, studies show that we are actually wired for this to happen. In order to protect us from making the same mistake twice, negative information produces bigger surges of activity in the cerebral cortex than positive information does. So when we say ‘no,’ which others can interpret as a negative response, it sticks with us longer than a positive reaction would have.

Additionally, saying ‘no’ taps into our fear of conflict. When we are afraid that saying ‘no’ will cause more trouble than just saying ‘yes’ would, we tend to silence the voice in our heads that tells us to turn down the request or opportunity.

Why saying no is important

Saying ‘yes’ to everything can be a disservice to both you and the person asking for help. For instance, if saying ‘yes’ to serving on that community board is going to be the straw that broke your tightly piled list of commitments, then it’s not a good idea. You will risk letting the board down – as well as others who rely on you –  in terms of how much you can accomplish.

Saying ‘yes’ too often can also lead to resentment. If you agree to let a friend in need crash at your house when your home environment is already crazy, your agreement to let him or her stay with you may cause a strain on your relationship, adding to the stress you both feel (rather than alleviating it).

Finally, once you say ‘yes’ a few too many times, people may start to expect your help and take advantage of your time. This can affect your self-confidence, as their lack of appreciation and consideration of your time can cause you great stress.

The art of saying no (without feeling guilty)

By starting with a compliment and being encouraging, you can say ‘no’ nicely - and protect your calendar and your time - at once.

By starting with a compliment and being encouraging, you can say ‘no’ nicely – and protect your calendar and your time – at once.

People only know what you tell them. So if you are saying ‘yes’ all of the time, they may start to assume that you have all of the time in the world to help them.

Here are some go-to strategies for saying no kindly the next time someone asks something of you that you don’t feel is a fit for what you have to give.

Consider the opportunity first before saying ‘no’ immediately

When someone asks something of you that you know is just too big of a commitment for your limited availability, it can be tempting to say ‘no’ right away. Before hitting ‘send’ on that email, take a day or two to craft a thoughtful response that lets the other person know that you took their request seriously and appreciate their reaching out to you.

Do this before you say ‘yes,’ too, and it will prevent you from overextending yourself.

Start with a compliment

By starting with a compliment, it lets the asker know that you value and appreciate the opportunity. For instance, you could say:

“Wow! What an incredible undertaking.”

“I read through all of the materials you provided me with and am so impressed by your efforts.”

“I am so honored that you would think of me and came to me for help.”

Thank them and be straightforward

Next, be sure to thank them, and then be upfront and clear with your response.

“Thank you so much for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I am just not able to help at this time but would love to in the future.”

“Thank you so much for thinking of me. Although unfortunately right now I do not have the availability to (enter what they asked), I would be happy to (offer an alternative).”

Set boundaries

Remember that boundaries aren’t naturally set – you need to set them. If someone you barely know asks you for free advice, or a friend asks you to invite their cousin’s friend to your wedding, you need to let them know that their requests are out of line with what you’ll be able to give.

After thanking them, let them know what your rule or boundary is. You could say:

“I would be so happy to help you, but in order to help me separate my work life from my personal life I do not offer free advice outside of the office.”

“We are only inviting close friends to the wedding, so unfortunately we don’t have room on our guest list.”

Consider saying “yes, but”

If it’s an opportunity that you would really love to take on but just can’t right now, ask for a raincheck. One strategy for saying ‘no’ is to really say ‘yes, but…’:

“I would love to help, but can you put me on the list for next year’s event?”

“Of course you can stay with us. However, in two weeks we have family coming to visit, so we can only host you until then.”

“That sounds like a great offer, thank you. Would you consider increasing the pay by 5 percent? With that, I could say ‘yes’ to the opportunity.”

Saying ‘no’ to a bully

If someone is trying to bully you into saying ‘yes’ after you’ve already told them ‘no’:

  • Repeat the answer you already gave them
  • Use your body language to solidify your confidence in your answer. Shake your head no and raise your voice a bit.
  • Emphasize that you keep your promises and commitments. Give an example of a time you’ve done this in the past, and explain you are careful not to commit to anything you can’t fulfill.
  • Offer some alternatives if you can, and then politely walk away.

If you are dealing with a bully who is also your boss, take these smart steps and precautions to handle them professionally.

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What are your go-to strategies for saying no kindly?

Have you ever tried these strategies for saying no more often? Let us know how it went in the comments below.