“NO!” –a word so short yet so hard to say

Replying to unwelcome requests

Most of us have found it hard to refuse a request at some time in our lives. How about you?

  • Do you find it hard to say “NO” – to your colleagues, partner, family or friends?

  • Does your gut seize up and secretly say “NO” to the request, while your mouth opens and says “YES”?
  • Do you then stress about how to get out of the corner you’ve got yourself into? All this because it’s so hard to say “NO” assertively and hence effectively.

What stops you saying “NO”?

You may find it easier to say no to some people than to others. The difficulty arises when you agree for yourself or others to do things as a result of which you feel uncomfortable, unhappy or pressured to cope with more than you can do. Thus you may feel imposed or put upon.

The inability to refuse an unwelcome request politely and clearly can also cause you to lose your work-life balance.

What stops you saying NO?

Here are ten common reasons:

  • Feeling guilty, mean and selfish.

  • Feeling you won’t be liked.

  • A sense of obligation.

  • You don’t want to rock the boat.

  • Fear it will be held against you.

  • Being too worn and too tired to assert yourself

  • You’ve always said “Yes” to the request so it’s hard to change the pattern.

  • Not knowing how to say no.

  • Feeling you do not have the right to say no, especially to someone who has authority over you or who has professional or specific expertise (e.g. lawyer, doctor, teacher, car mechanic or hairdresser).

Ways you say “NO”

So when you get that unreasonable or unwanted request, what do you say or do?

  • Say yes, for fear of upsetting them or getting a barrage back.
  • Pull a face.
  • Make excuses “I’m going out”.
  • Say “I don’t mind”.
  • Try to make them feel guilty so they’ll withdraw their request.
  • Say “I’ll think about it” (avoidance) without any indication of when you’ll give an answer.
  • Say ‘yes’ then sabotage it by not doing it, so they won’t risk asking you again, but also placing a strain on the relationship.

Your assertive right to refuse

Here are five assertive personal rights to help you have courage and confidence to say no, or ask for time to think about the request and to give you permission to change your mind in the event that you don’t say “NO” in the first place.

  • I have the right to define my own limits, look after my needs and say ‘no’. (You don’t always need to look after others’ needs before your own. Find a comfortable and honest balance).
  • I have the right to ask for time to think before I agree, disagree or make a decision. (You don’t have to respond instantly if you’re unsure but, if you ask for time, ensure that you also say when you’ll get back to the person. It gives both you and them a deadline).

  • I have the right to reconsider and change my mind. (If you say “YES” at the time then regret it, you can change your mind, but don’t leave it to the eleventh hour).

  • I have the right to refuse responsibility for other people’s problems if I so choose. (You are responsible to but not for others, unless they are your dependents).

  • I have the right to relate to people without being dependent on them for approval. (The most common reason people cite for being unable to say “NO” is the fear of losing approval, but is it reasonable to expect everyone to approve of everything you do or don’t do? If you try, you’ll end up running round in circles, trying to please everyone except yourself).

These assertive rights are not a selfish recipe. We all have these rights and sometimes people will say no to us too. Assertiveness involves good listening, empathy, self and mutual-respect. 

The skills to say “NO” 

Once you feel you have right to say “NO”, there is the question of how to say it. These core skills will help your confidence and spontaneity in saying “NO”:

  • Recognise when you want to say “NO” and avoid knee jerk reactions to try to please.

  • Be clear and specific. Say ‘No’ or ‘I don’t want…’, not ‘can’t’ or ‘possibly’ or ‘perhaps’.

  • Use assertive body languageBe clear, speak up without shouting and maintain eye contact.
  • Empathise. Show that you understand the other person’s point of view. For example, ‘I can understand you want the groundwork to be done soon, but I don’t want to start anything new this week.’
  • Self-disclosure. If difficult feelings get in the way of saying no, self-disclose them. For example, ‘I feel awkward refusing, but I don’t want to start a new project this week.’ Self-disclose your feelings about the effect of the request. For example, ‘I’d feel pressured if I begin the next project when I’m finalising the details on this one and feel it could adversely affect it.’
  • Benefits. Sell the benefits. For example, ‘If I start the project next week, I can give it my undivided attention.’
  • Negative enquiry. Check whether your refusal presents a real problem. For example, ‘What problems do you envisage if I start next week rather than this week?’
  • Question assertively. Ask questions to try to resolve any difficulties. For example, ‘What do you think we could usefully do in the meantime?’
  • If you are undecided about the request, be clear and specific. For example, ‘I’m not sure. I’d like to think it over. I’ll call you on Tuesday at 2 p.m. and let you know. I trust this is OK for you?’
  • If all else fails, remember you have the right to change your mind. For example, ‘I know I agreed to start the project in mid-September, but I now realise it isn’t practicable and I’d like to start in October. I’ve worked out a timeline and I’ll be able to complete it in good time”.

In summary

The assertive right to say no does not mean you become selfishly absorbed by your own needs. It empowers you to consider other’s needs in relation to your own. This means that you can be clear and honest about what you can and want to do and what you do and don’t want others to do. There are many positive consequences of a polite, assertive refusal since everyone knows where they stand and it is a key factor in enhancing your self-respect.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, NW11
Written by Lucy Seifert, Life Coach London
London, NW11

As one of the most experienced coaches and trainers in the UK, my knowledge and approach have been developed over 30 years of coaching and training. I have worked with individuals and within organisations across all sectors, including NatWest IT R&D, Stuart Low Trust (charity) and University of...

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