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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Just Say No: Why is it Hard and 10 Tips that Help

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

Just Say No

Being able to say no is another aspect of assertive communication, that many of us struggle with.

If your communication style is passive, it is likely that you find it hard to say no to others altogether, and if it is aggressive, maybe you say no in an aggressive way that comes across as attacking and hostile.

Let's delve deeper into the matter. In this blog post we will discuss:

  • Why it is difficult to Just Say No

  • Why it is beneficial to be able to

  • As well as 10 tips to help you if this is something you would like to improve.

Why Is It Difficult?

It is just a simple, two-letter word… What makes it so difficult to utter it?

  • Conflict Avoidance

We often seem to believe that saying no equals conflict, and there are many people that would rather avoid conflict at all costs.

This is based on the conviction that conflict is bad. Yet conflict is unavoidable, since we are all different and unique and it is impossible that there is total agreement with everyone at all times. Conflict could be better regarded as an opportunity of growth in interpersonal relationships.

By not being able to decline, you actually dishonor both yourself and your relationships. You are not respectful to your own wishes by accepting when you’d rather refuse, and to your relationship by not being honest to the other about what’s really on your mind.

You also create fake impressions and expectations to others, not to mention the buildup of resentment, frustration and disappointment that is growing within you, and is likely to result to poor outcomes that will leave you even more dissatisfied by your relationships in the future.

  • Pleasing Others

If you are a people-pleaser, it is likely you gain validation about yourself by being accommodating and helpful to others.

When you make others happy, you are happy too! There's nothing wrong with this, as long as it does not escalate to self-sacrifice. You may forget about prioritizing yourself in the process.

You maybe think that saying no is impolite, and you don’t want to come across as rude. You worry that, if you say no, others will not like you as much, and may even abandon you. In your mind, no equals potential disapproval.

Yet, it is a common truth that we simply cannot be liked by everyone. Moreover, you lose respect by attempting to always be at the service of others; it is as if your own needs don’t matter. You reflect low self-worth to the outside, and then you are bound to reap what you sow.

  • Unclear Needs and Boundaries

As discussed last week, knowing your boundaries and what it is you really want is a first step towards assertive communication. If it is hard for you to say no, it is likely that what you really want is still unclear to you.

The more uncertain, unhappy and confused you are, the more often you will say yes, with a hope that by doing so, you will come closer to realizing what it is you want.

The question “What if I can actually do this?” and “What if I like it after all”? may very well indicate curiosity and a willingness to experiment and explore, but it can also be a sign of self-doubt and low self-esteem.

The more soul-searching you do about what you deeply desire, what your boundaries are, and what you cannot tolerate, the more confident you will become about declining assertively.

  • No As An Attack

Perhaps you don’t find it hard to say no in general, but rather to do so in an assertive, respectful and effective way. This can mean you decline aggressively and that your no is perceived as an attack by others.

We tend to do so with the ones we mostly feel safe in intimate relationships, and when we assess we have the upper hand in control.

By saying no aggressively, you gain in feeling empowered but risk the connection with the Other. You might hurt and offend them in a way that jeopardizes the sustainability and harmony of the relationship.

Questions to Reflect On

  • What are your reasons for having difficulty to say no?

  • Do you have this difficulty overall, or do some situations and people make it harder for you?

  • Who would you be without this difficulty?

  • How would your relationships change?

  • What would you lose and what would you gain?

No Pain - No Gain

Saying no is not simple to everyone. It can take a while to learn, just like assertive communication in total. Yet there are multiple gains by successfully mastering No.

Being able to decline brings a sense of empowerment. You gradually increase your confidence about asserting and defending your wishes.

By establishing your boundaries, you open the path to maintaining balanced relationships that serve both you and the other.

By being more clear towards yourself and others, and able to chose what you agree to rather than do so and then regret, you become more honest and authentic in your interactions with others.

“We must be able to say what is ‘not me’ in order to have a ‘me’. What we like has no meaning unless we know what we don’t like. Our yes has no meaning if we never say no. My chosen profession has no passion if ‘just anyone would do’. Our opinions and thoughts mean very little if there is nothing we disagree with.” ~ Henry Cloud

Helpful Tips Towards Saying No Assertively

1. Know Thyself

I have repeatedly emphasized the significance of self-awareness and knowing your boundaries. You need to first know what it is you want and don’t want, in order to be able to subsequently express it to others as well. If your no’s are not crystal clear to you, it will be more difficult to be assertive about them to others.

2. Define your Yes first

It may be easier to recognize your no-go zones, if you first realize your go-zones.

In other words, if you have trouble saying no to others, a great idea is if you’ll make a list with all the things and areas you’d agree to. Knowing under which circumstances you would gladly accept can also help you in communicating this to others, too, as we will see below.

For instance, if you have trouble asserting yourself at work, it can be helpful to organize your publicly shared agenda at the office with “available” and “not available” timeslots and then only answer to requests by colleagues if they come during your available times.

3. Be Clear and Concise- Explain

Sometimes it is required that you just utter a dry "no". Although it is true that you do not have to explain your reasons for declining a specific request at all times, I strongly support honest and authentic communication with others. This is enhanced when you make the effort to explain your reasons for refusing in a polite, respectful and concrete way.

This way you show that you value them enough to express what’s on your mind, and that you value your priorities and needs as well. Moreover, it’s often harder for our no to be listened to by others, if our reason for declining remains vague and blurry.

4. Be Considerate- Offer Alternatives

Although being confident and assertive about your own needs earns you the respect of others, an equally important aspect of assertiveness is the maintenance of your relationships.

It’s not only about what you say, but how to say it too, in order to sustain relationships even when you disagree with others or you have to decline requests.

A useful tip towards being considerate of the other’s wishes is if you offer alternatives when you decline, instead of just saying no in an absolute way.

Consider These Questions:

  • When would you be able to say yes?

  • What would you be able to say yes to, instead?

  • What is the problem with the current request?

If you first say no but then offer an alternative solution based on the above questions, you show the other that you take their request into consideration and value it as important.

You imply that you respect and listen to them, and try to brainstorm about other ways to assist, since you have to decline on the specific topic they asked your help on.

5. Take Your Time If you are Uncertain

Perhaps you have noticed you find it harder to say no, when you are unsure about a certain topic. Then you are more likely to say yes, and later you regret doing so and feel as if you are trapped.

This is quite easy to resolve!

From now on, make a conscious commitment that next time you are unsure if you can bring forth a specific request, you are going to request more time in order to think about it and then give a response, rather than accepting in a spontaneous way.

This way, you build your reliability and consistency towards others, instead of having to cancel plans or delay their delivery.

Be as concrete as possible about when you would be able to give your reply- people like clarity.I am not sure right now, I will give you a clear answer until the end of the day” sounds much better than “I will get back to you later”- because the latter is quite vague.

If you have trouble organizing yourself with regards to tasks and responsibilities to others, it is always helpful to put relevant reminders in your agenda.

6. Connect with your Self-Worth

If it is difficult to prioritize your needs and therefore say no to others, when their request comes in conflict with your wishes, it can help to take a moment to get in touch with your self-worth before giving your reply.

By this I mean connecting with the sense of respect for yourself, that you would like to reflect to others.

7. Evaluate the Consequences

We often say yes impulsively, without having evaluated what it means if we do so. In addition, sometimes we have to decline activities we would actually enjoy, because of other responsibilities or benefits.

In both these cases, it is helpful to visualize the future and regard the possible consequences of both a yes and a no.

For example, a friend may invite you to a party you’d really like to go, but you feel you might be catching a cold so it wouldn’t be the best idea to risk your health by drinking a lot and going to sleep late.

It is wiser to visualize your future rather than think of what you will miss out if you do not go to this party; unless of course it is a really special occasion.

Or a colleague has asked you to take over a few of her tasks, and you have the time to do it now, but it will mean delaying another project of your own if you take your whole working week into consideration.

Therefore, it is useful to think a few steps ahead. You may need to employ tip nr 5 and take more time for yourself, in order to be able to carry out such an assessment.

Comparing the consequences will help you gain a clearer picture of what is more substantial to you now, and therefore encourage you to make the decision that is more well-informed and conscious.

8. Prioritize your Values

There are times when the request of another comes to a direct clash to your values, when you consider it unethical. For example, think of a good friend that is asking you to lie for them, in order to help them out with an argument they had with their romantic partner.

Maybe you are comfortable doing so, in which case you will accept. But if honesty is a principle you value highly, then this request would violate your value.

Though your commitment to your friend is important to you, and refusing can feel daunting, it may be easier to decline if you bring your value forward.

“I am very sorry you feel like this and wish I could help you out. However, I really value honesty and do not like lying, so I have to decline to you. Is there another way I could help?” could be an effective and assertive way of communicating your refusal, while still being considerate of your friend’s emotions.

9. Evaluate the Circumstances and Relationship

Saying no is different across circumstances and relationships. That’s why it is important to always consider who you are saying no to, and why.

It is different to have to say no to your partner, who usually is very helpful to you and accommodates your needs, than it is to say no to the demanding colleague that often burdens you with extra tasks.

If the person you have to say no to says yes to you most of the times when you request their help, and rarely asks for anything in return, your “no” might strike them as a rejection and cause them disappointment.

Relationships are all about a balance of give-and-take. It is therefore beneficial to keep this balance in mind, if you are also interested in being in mutually satisfying relationships that flow smoothly.

10. Be Polite and Validate the other person’s Feelings

Assertive no essentially means polite and respectful no. Pick your words carefully and take the other person’s emotions into consideration. This is especially significant for interpersonal rather than professional interactions.

Validating the other person’s feelings means expressing emphatic understanding of how they feel.

For example, “I understand you are under great pressure and that’s why you asked for my help finishing this project. I get you are stressed and feel sorry to have to disappoint you by saying no. I have an important meeting to attend to but I could gladly help out with a smaller task tomorrow”.

If you inspect the above example, you may realize it incorporates all recommended tips for assertively saying no: validation of the other’s feelings, reflection of understanding, considerate explanation and offer of an alternative solution.

In Conclusion…

Saying no is vital for our self-growth, as it is a part of asserting our needs. It is a simple 2-letter word, and yet so difficult to utter it at times!

By practicing assertive declining, you will inevitably gain a greater sense of control on your life, your self-confidence will rise, and others will treat you with more respect as well. Saying no means you know your limits!

If you get stuck, then remember to connect with Yourself and remind yourself what it is that you want out of life.

Just channel your Inner Rebel, that part of you that is dynamic and rebellious, and let them take the lead for a while! The results will surely amaze you 😊

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