The Art of Saying No

no-68481_640We’ve all done it: Said yes when what we really meant was no. 

There are many reasons that we do it:

A fear of disappointing or angering someone;

concern that no one will be there for us when we need something;

fear of not being liked;

or maybe even an underlying belief that we should be self-sacrificing to be worthy of love.

Whatever the reason, saying yes when you really mean no leaves you kicking yourself. You’re over-extended, and you’re doing things that really aren’t that important to you. Worse still, you’ve added to the self-loathing that comes with betraying yourself and moving away from what you truly want.

So how do you say no? One trick is to do it so gracefully that you sidestep those fears that get kicked up at just the thought of saying no to someone.

Saying No

Here’s a great example:

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Some time ago, my wife was invited to serve as chairman of a committee in a community endeavor. She had  a number of truly important things she was trying to work on , and she really didn’t want to do it. But she felt pressured into it and finally agreed.

                Then she called one of her dear friends to ask if she would serve on her committee. Her friend listened for a long time and then said, “Sandra, that sounds like a wonderful project, a really worthy undertaking. I appreciate so much your inviting me to be a part of it. I feel honored by it. For a number of reasons, I won’t be participating myself, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your invitation.”

                Sandra was ready for anything but a pleasant “no.” She turned to me and sighed, “I wish I’d said that.””

 Stephen R. Covey (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Let’s dissect the “no.” If you can take apart the elements of a graceful “no,” and reconstruct it into one that is authentic for you (using your language), you never have to say yes when you really mean no again.

First, notice how the friend comments on the value of whatever is being asked of her: “that sounds like a wonderful project, a really worthy undertaking.”

Since we are afraid of insulting people by implying that their request is not worth our time or is not interesting, this can help the person who is asking something of you to feel that their request or project is still valuable, even though you won’t be there.

Second, state your gratitude for being thought of, and how it makes you feel to be included. After all, whatever the request, you are being asked because you bring something of value to the situation.   “I appreciate so much your inviting me to be a part of it. I feel honored by it.”

Third, say no. “For a number of reasons, I won’t be participating myself, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your invitation.”

Notice how the friend declines, politely, but does so while being kind, thankful, clear and firm?

She doesn’t spend time on why she can’t; she doesn’t defend her reasons. She says no politely but firmly.  Also, notice how she doesn’t resort to “I can’t.” She owns the fact that she is making a choice based on her own priorities and doesn’t shy away from that.

So here’s the formula. You fill in the blanks:

That sounds like a _______adjective______ project.  I feel __________________ that you asked me, but for a number of reasons I won’t be participating. Thank you thinking of me.

A few ground rules:

  1. Rework this formula so that it works for you. It should sound like you and not feel like someone else’s language.
  2. It’s important that you clearly decline. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in being graceful that the other person thinks you’ve actually accepted.
  3. Don’t make excuses.  Try not to say “I can’t.” You rarely can’t do something, you just choose not to. Saying “I can’t” gives away the power you’ve claimed by making a choice about what you can do with your time.

You can be a kind, generous and caring person while still having your own agenda and control over your time. If you don’t take control over your time and agenda, you are living someone else’s life, and ultimately you won’t be giving the world the kindest and most generous gift you can offer: the gift of your true self.


Career, Coaching, Inspiration, Life Path, Personal Development

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