How I Learned to Say No

My name is Lindsey and I am a recovering yes-woman.

Why is it that saying yes—even when it means changing our entire schedule, canceling other plans or doing something totally unpleasant—feels so much easier than just saying no? For me, saying yes was also a lifelong habit. I often said yes because I didn’t know how to say no. But over the past year I learned how, and the benefits have been amazing. Saying no to things you don’t want to do creates more room in your life for the things you do want. Plus, it is a major stress reducer.

Three lessons that helped me learn to say no:

Lesson #1: Get lots of practice. The first thing I learned is that it is much easier to say no to a machine or a stranger than a friend or colleague. Luckily, in modern life we have endless opportunities, such as evites, invitations to connect to strangers on LinkedIn and retail clerks asking if we want to sign up for a store credit card. In these cases, I practiced the principle that “no” is a complete sentence. Zero explanation required. And I found that the more I said no in these casual encounters, the less fearful I became about using the word for more important personal and professional decisions.
Lesson #2: Give yourself time. My career coach taught me a sentence I now use constantly: “I’ll have to get back to you.” If you suffer from people-pleasing, then this sentence is a must. Whenever you are invited to an event, asked for a favor or receive any other request, don’t feel compelled to answer in the moment. This past month I saved myself from countless events simply by delaying my response for 24 hours and then replying with a simple, “I’m sorry but I just can’t make it.”
Lesson #3: Understand that people would rather hear an honest “no” than a dishonest “yes.” In the past, when I really wanted to say no, I would say yes first, in hopes that this would soften the later blow of canceling at the last minute. Wrong! I’ve learned that an honest, upfront answer is the best way to go. Another gem from my coach: “It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. It’s better to do it quickly and definitively.” I finally began to understand that it is kinder to other people when you say no honestly. It helps them move on and find someone who will give a genuine yes.
These are just three tips in a sea of helpful advice on the art of saying no. I’d love to hear any lessons that have helped you—please share in the comments section. For two little letters, “no” has made an amazing impact on my life and career—I highly recommend it!

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6 Responses

  1. Outstanding advice here, Linda. I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of saying yes to something or someone and then regretting it later.

    Requests for our time and attention come at us every day. Even seemingly simple projects can suck up far more of our time then we had intended.

    The 24-hour window for considering a request is a good one. I would add that setting firm boundaries — and then sticking to them — is important, too.

    So, try a response like this: “Yes, George, I can meet with over coffee after work on Monday to give you an introductory lesson on how to use an RSS reader. Happy to do so. But I do have another project to finish that night, so we’ll need to keep the meeting to 45 minutes.”

  2. For my entire music career, my bands have been dogged by harmonica players who brandish harmonicas at the front of the stage and ask to sit in with the band.

    I learned a simple and effective technique for saying no in these situation from a band called NRBQ. We were opening for them once, and I witnessed someone asking bandleader Terry Adams if he could sit in. “We don’t jam,” said Terry.

    Conversation over.

  3. @ Bryan Person – I totally agree about boundaries. That’s a great tip that anyone can apply. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Great advice. Not saying no can also do more harm than good. Instead of being seen as a “yes-person,” if you take on more than you can handle you might end up dropping the ball on a big project.

    Saying no is tough. I was once reprimanded by a former boss for saying “maybe.” Needless to say, I ultimately said no by taking another job.

  5. Lindsey,
    Thanks for this blog:)
    I am a CONSTANT people pleaser, and it is SO hard for me to say no!
    Because of this I end up disappointing people or doing things i don’t enjoy doing!
    I’m going to try your tip of saying “I’ll have to get back to you”! It sounds like a winner:)
    Thanks again for a great blog
    ~Mollie Christianson

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