How to say no

How to say no

Ne, Nein, Na, Non – many languages have their own way of expressing the negative, an often abrupt, monosyllabic word that nonetheless holds endless potential. We may see no as the rejection of something: a demand, a request, even an opportunity, but it can serve a far greater purpose. 

In every no, there is an implicit yes. It is a yes to our own needs. 

This might be an affirmation of our values, of our right to free time, autonomy and an identity that exists outside the sphere of the myriad of demands that life presents us with. Sometimes no is the right to self-respect and an asking of basic respect from others. Perhaps no should not be taken so severely by some as it is; perhaps there is a too much of a reputation of selfishness, coldness and malcontent about a word that is as functional as it is essential. 

Why we find it hard to say no

Though we can champion the needs of the self, assertiveness does not come easily. Many of us will be a pushover in a least some areas of our lives, possibly as a way to compensate for others, or out of a sense of duty that our purpose is to prop up those who depend on us. Accepting things that take a toll on us is very easy when those things have an emotional appeal. It can be hard resisting the desires of those we trust: our family, children, close friends, especially when many of those desires are reasonable, or negligible, in themselves. 

But we will also accept things for practical reasons – or least what we believe are practical reasons. For example, many have accepted that progressing in their careers will mean making sacrifices. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to distinguish between what is a reasonable sacrifice and what is a destructive one. Burnout occurs when one works hard to attain ‘goals’ while neglecting their most essential needs. Though convinced that they are working for themselves, their time and energy has been divvied up and sold to ventures that only benefit them in the most superficial sense. Goals need to consider wellbeing as well as productivity.  

Sometimes our reasoning is even more basic: we agree to things because we don’t like conflict. The prospect of disappointing a stranger to whom we have no obligation, and who wouldn’t even act in our own interests can make us feel sour, if not fail to say no outright. We ignore homeless people because it would be far harder to say no to them than to say nothing. Many times when we have a favour asked of us we wouldn’t even consider turning it down. This is often true even when the favour is unethical, as studies on group mentality and conformity have shown. 

This comes down to a need to be seen as agreeable, as likeable and to make social interaction as simple and frictionless as possible. Even if we see the benefits of affirming ourselves, there is too much risk involved, and we are highly risk-averse when it comes to interacting with others. 

What we lose when we don’t set boundaries

These tensions will not be resolved by simply saying no to anything that doesn’t immediately and directly benefit us. It’s completely healthy to be conscious about selfishness –  the acting for yourself at the expense of others. To treat others as we would like to be treated is a solid principle, although the complexities of human behaviour muddy this a little bit. 

The issue is that it feels almost impossible to reckon what need with what we believe in. Partly this is because we haven’t really figured out what we need, nor have we thoroughly integrated our values within the context of everyday life. This means we are always at risk of feeling inadequate and unfulfilled. If, for example, we hold kindness and responsibility in high esteem, then we become very aware of situations when we are acting unkind or irresponsible, even if they are necessary in the moment. 

Though we may not be able to feel satisfied in every choice we make, it is important to feel in control. Saying no is about setting boundaries. It’s not necessarily true that we can’t help others before helping ourselves, but undoubtedly we have a stronger ability to help others once we are sure of ourselves. 

When we don’t set boundaries, or don’t recognise where they are needed, we inadvertently widen the gap between who we are and who we could be. Adhering to principles too rigidly can lead us to lose sight of the greater picture: the things we need in order to be sure of ourselves. 

Becoming comfortable with no

How can we attain a stronger feeling of control? Here are some practical tips to tell people no when necessary:

  • Soften the blow: Though it would be nice if the simple no was more socially acceptable, you may find it easier to substitute an abrupt phrase with a more constructive one, especially if you are using it with people you want to foster a positive relationship with. If somebody offers you an idea you don’t agree with, then ask if yourself if you can build on it without outright rejecting it. If not, explain why you disagree with it and try to start a dialogue on where you can go.

If you want to decline a social invitation but maintain a good relationship, then say ‘thanks, but I’m not able to.’ 

When it comes to those we are close with, then it may be worth being more upfront about our feelings. A sense of humour, and willingness to question what is asked of us can be valuable. However, if you feel threatened or coerced then you need to confide in somebody you trust. Some people will be impossible to negotiate with, and in this case, it might be wise to remove yourself from the situation. 

  • Write down your values – and your needs: As long as we only see values in very general terms we risk alienating ourselves from them. Write down what you believe in, and how your needs factor in to them. For example, you may write ‘I believe in treating others with kindness’ and add to it ‘I need to be treated with kindness in order to fully achieve this’. If you believe in working hard, then your need may be to ‘take sufficient breaks, so I avoid burnout.’ This should help form links between the two. 

  • Explain your perspective: If you feel somebody is exploiting your kindness, then you may find it liberating to explain to them how you are feeling. Calmly state why you feel the request is unfair, highlighting the things you do and how you’re happy to help but would like more cooperation and sharing of responsibilities. This does not need to accusatory or blame the other party. Hopefully this will be a reality check for the person and improve, rather than diminish, your relationship. 

  • Give yourself some space: It isn’t always possible to immediately know if we should accept or reject something. The question may be big, and have lots of implications. Instead of trying to come off as assured by giving a rushed answer, there is nothing wrong with requesting some time to think it over. Say: ‘let me get back to you on that’ or ‘I need some time to think about this’. Instead of making you look unenthusiastic or wishy-washy, it can show you are thoughtful and discerning, not eager to make impulsive decisions. 

  • Practice: A degree of willpower can be helpful in kickstarting the transformation of ourselves. By starting with small scenarios, we can gradually gain the confidence we need for more daunting confrontations. It may even be helpful to keep a diary of every time you stand up for yourself, feel confident or gain back control in a small way. This will paint a picture of where you are, and hint at where you could be.