Do you have a hard time saying no?

Here’s the truth: Saying no is hard.

There is a way to say no without being awkward, damaging relationships, or feeling guilty.

6 Tips to Help You Say No

Switch Out “No” for “Later”

Switch Out "No" for "Later"

If you’re just starting out, you don’t have to jump straight to no.

Saying no can be tough.

But saying later? Much easier.

Make your default response to any request “Let me get back to you.”

Here are a few pocket phrases you can use to extend your no:

  • “Let me check my schedule and get back to you later.”
  • “I’ll have to ask my spouse if we have anything going on later.”
  • “Nice suggestion! Let me think about that first, and I’ll get back to you.”
  • “Great, let me see if I’ve got to pick up my kid from school that day.”

If you’re at work, ask people to text or email you their request so you can get back to them.

Once they send you a follow-up, it is much easier to send them a polite reply saying that you’re unable to agree to their request.

Or if you’re asked to pick up a friend’s cousin’s niece from the airport, tell them you’re busy—but maybe offer them a schedule of when you’re free later.

Pro Tip: Don’t rely on your laters forever. And try not to lie. Once your laters are used up, saying later again can just cause you to seem untrustworthy in the long run.

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Rehearse Your No

Rehearse Your No's

Unfortunately, you might not always have the luxury of saying no to someone over text or email at your own convenience.

Sometimes, these invites or requests happen spontaneously and in person, requiring an answer immediately. To prepare for these situations, it’s useful to rehearse your noes beforehand.

  • “Thanks so much for the invite, but I’m really trying to focus on my work these days, so I’m gonna have to say no.”
  • “I actually have a lot on my plate right now, so I can’t help you out here. I appreciate that you thought of me, though! Good luck on getting it done.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I told myself I really have to go to the gym tonight. Actually, I’ve vowed to go to the gym consistently so I hit my New Year’s Resolution—I hope you can understand.”

If you’re afraid of coming off as robotic or unnatural, it helps to rehearse these lines in front of a mirror.

Or, if you can, get a friend or family member to do some fun role-playing with you!

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Don’t Offer an Explanation

Don't Offer an Explanation

Offering an excuse may seem like the polite way to decline a request, but it sets you up for an awkward situation.

Here are a few examples:

  • You decline someone’s invitation to go out for coffee because you already have plans on the day they requested… then they ask you what day works best for you.
  • You tell someone you can’t go to a party because you have no one to watch the kids… they offer to let you bring your kids.
  • You apologize for not being able to help someone with a project because you’re working toward a major deadline… they reply that they’d love to have your help once you’re finished with your current project.

No matter what excuse you offer, people who are determined to get you to say yes can—and WILL—come up with a way to reel you in.

But the solution doesn’t require an entire fisherman’s tool kit to score. In fact, I want you to be more like a nimble spearfisher instead.

Here’s what to do in 3 steps:

  1. Thank them for the offer.
  2. Tell them you can’t agree.
  3. Offer no explanation.

Realize you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Of course, being blunt with your no doesn’t mean being rude. Even if you don’t offer an explanation, you can still soften the blow by being polite and appreciative.

For example, instead of a curt, “No, I can’t do that,” you could say, “I’m really sorry, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to take this on. I appreciate that you thought of me and best of luck!”

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Do Offer An Alternative

Do Offer An Alternative

If the person asking you for something is someone with who you want to maintain a positive relationship with, you can lessen the impact of your no by offering an alternative.

For example:

  • If someone wants you to collaborate with them on a project, introduce them to someone else who might be interested.
  • Your new friend invites you to a bar, but loud places and drinking aren’t your thing. Ask them if they want to grab coffee or do another activity instead.
  • An eager young employee in your office offers to help you with an important project, but you fear their involvement would slow down progress. Ask them if they want to work with you on a lower-pressure project instead.

The goal is to offer a compromise so they don’t take offense to you saying no, and you don’t feel guilty for turning down a request that would add unneeded stress to your life.

Win-win!

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Use “No” Body Language

Use "No" Body Language

Does your body say yes or no?

Depending on what you look like, your body can give away immediate answers even before you speak.

After all, according to Darioly and Mast, about 65 to 90% of our communication is nonverbal.

So even before you open your mouth to say no, try saying no with your body:

  • Turn your torso away. Imagine someone you really dislike is trying to hug you—and this would be exactly the thing you’d want to do. Turn your torso so you’re not facing them. Whatever you do, use your body to signal no!
  • Cross your arms. To further cut off communication, close off your chest by crossing your arms. This is a naturally defensive and unfriendly posture we take when we feel “guarded.”
  • Point your toes away. Notice a pattern? Our feet tend to point toward where we want to go—so point them away to signal your interests lie elsewhere.

Once you signal no with your body, your potential asker may get the message nonverbally. If not, your body will make it a lot easier for you to say no too.

And if you want to read up more on how you can close up your body language, read on! 16 Essential Body Language Examples and Their Meanings

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Slay the Procrastination Dragon

Slay the Procrastination Dragon

A large part of why it’s hard to say no is likely because you’re a big procrastinator.

Or you get distracted with things that don’t fulfill your true purpose.

Why? Because if you have a hard time saying no to others, you likely have a hard time saying no to yourself:

  • Should I go out and spend all day with my friends, when I should really be studying? Sure!
  • Should I eat this whole pint of ice cream, even though I’m super full? Why not?
  • Should I delay this project, even though it’s due tomorrow? It won’t hurt much!

Can you relate to giving into these time-wasters?

You see, the Procrastination Dragon is a fearsome monster that thrives on wasting time—and the only way to stop it is to slay it with your sword… and that sword is named NO.

So here’s a fun exercise to do:

  • Every night before you go to bed, name 3 time wasters you wanted and gave in to that day. Take a look in the mirror and say these things. Here’s one of mine: “I want to spend my lunch break watching funny YouTube videos instead of preparing for my upcoming meeting.”
  • Now, after you say these things, tell yourself NO.
  • Repeat this as many times as you need to be effective.

By telling yourself no, you condition yourself to accept no as part of your reality—and saying no to others becomes that much easier.

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Bonus Tip #7: Ask vs. Guess Culture

Ask vs. Guess Culture infographic

Have you ever heard of “ask vs. guess culture”?

What is the ask vs. guess culture?

The “ask vs. guess culture” is a term that describes two different ways that cultures or people use to interact with one another. In the ask culture, people are typically described as direct and more open to bluntly asking yes or no questions. In the guess culture, individuals rely more on subtle context clues and shy away from being so direct.

People who lean toward the ask culture typically face more rejection and disappointment since they always ask questions, instead of “guessing” what the other person thinks.

For example, if they don’t clearly understand a procedure, they may ask for further clarification from the supervisor, instead of relying on their “gut feeling.”

Askers are naturally better at saying no than guessers. Since they ask so many yes/no questions themselves, they’re much more used to hearing no and moving on.

People in the guess culture, however, tend to shy away from the verbal no, since they rely on nonverbal cues much more.

If you tend to have a hard time saying no, it’s likely you belong in the guess culture.

Here are a few examples of how an asker and guesser might interact:

Two Askers:

  • A: “Hey, can you finish the video edits by tomorrow?”
  • A: “No, I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve got too many tasks lined up.”

When two askers converse, they’re direct. They don’t leave any room for guessing because they answer with yeses and nos and expect a yes or no answer in return.

Asker to a Guesser:

  • A: “Hey, can you finish the video edits by tomorrow?”
  • G: “Uhh, can’t you see I’m a bit loaded here? Don’t you know how many tasks I’ve got lined up?”
  • A: “Sorry! I just wanted a straight yes or no answer.”

When an asker converses with a guesser, there might be more room for miscommunication. The guesser might feel offended that the asker is so blunt or unaware of context clues.

And, the asker might be wondering why the guesser can’t give them a straight answer or thinking that the guesser wants the asker to “read their mind.”

Guesser to an Asker:

  • G: “Hey, are you busy right now?”
  • A: “No, what’s up?”
  • G: “If you’ve got time can you get those video edits to me?”
  • A: “Sure! I’ll get it done as soon as I can.”
  • G: “Thanks!”

As you can see in this scenario, the guesser doesn’t ask directly. They might soften the question by using a preliminary ask, such as “Are you busy?”

Then the guesser might typically ask their question but avoid imposing any direct deadlines—even if they want something done by tomorrow, they may not explicitly state their needs.

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Why Is It So Hard to Say No?

Why are we all people pleasers? Why can’t we prioritize ourselves? Why do we feel stomped on?

Besides our “ask vs. guess culture” differences, let’s take a look at some more general reasons.

4 Reasons Why It's Hard to Say No Infographics

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We evolved to cooperate

OK, let’s admit it. You like the company of other people.

Maybe not everyone, but you sometimes get lonely if you isolate yourself and feel the need to interact every once in a while.

That’s perfectly normal since we’re all sociable creatures!

Fine-tuned by millennia of natural selection, we as a species have evolved with more or less a built-in desire to avoid conflict, keep the peace, and help out others… even if it comes at our own expense.

Comedy Central Anders Holmvik GIF by Workaholics - Find & Share on GIPHY

Helping out others with no immediate benefit (or even harm) to ourselves is known in the world of evolutionary biology as reciprocal altruism.

That’s when animals (including humans!) do things to temporarily lower their own evolutionary fitness while improving someone else’s, with the expectation that the favor will be returned at some point.

Reciprocal altruism is just one piece of a larger puzzle that seems to suggest that cooperation and social harmony, not competition, were the primary drivers for the advancement of our species.

In other words, we literally got to where we are as the most intelligent species on the planet by scratching each other’s back and getting ours scratched in return.

Nice!

So saying no to someone is, in almost any context, a pretty clear way of indicating that you don’t want to cooperate.

Combine this with the idea of reciprocal altruism, and it becomes pretty clear why so many of us can’t help but instinctively say yes to everything that’s asked of us.

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We want to be liked and accepted

In addition to cooperation, another fundamental component of evolutionary fitness is social acceptance and belonging.

Naturally, saying yes to others is a great way to gain acceptance and shield ourselves from social rejection.

However, a person’s desire to seek acceptance can vary greatly among the population, depending on a multitude of factors, all of which can influence your propensity to be a yes man (or woman!).

Perhaps the most straightforward predictor of one’s need to seek acceptance is self-esteem.

According to the “sociometer theory,” self-esteem is a measurement of our cumulative experiences of acceptance (and rejection) in interpersonal relations and interactions over time.

In other words, our self-esteem is directly correlated with our life experiences.

There are ways you can increase your self-esteem, but a large part of it is molded from our past and dictates our propensity to be yes people.

So those with low self-esteem will be more likely to exhibit people-pleasing behaviors, including being unable to say no to others.

Then there’s your attachment style, one of the most influential concepts in developmental psychology.

According to attachment theory, the way we’re raised by our parents can lead to the development of four main attachment styles in childhood (secure, ambivalent, anxious, and disorganized), which can go on to have a lasting and profound impact on the way we form relationships with others when we’re older.

Children with anxious attachment styles (i.e., ambivalent and avoidant, which generally form as a result of neglectful, careless, or inconsistent parenting) tend to grow up struggling to form relationships with others.

To outsiders, they may come across as needy, insecure, and—most relevant to our topic—desperate for validation and acceptance.

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We don’t want to hurt others’ feelings

Have you ever laughed at a joke when it clearly wasn’t funny? (“Dad, please stop with the jokes already.”)

On the flip side of desiring acceptance is the desire to make others feel accepted.

While many of us struggle with saying no, it’s also true that asking others for favors can be intimidating too, primarily because of the fear of rejection.

Indeed, a 2016 study found that people have a tendency to heavily overestimate the chances of a stranger saying no to a random request like using their phone. In reality, people are a lot nicer than we think—or, like you and I, they just have trouble saying no…

Whatever the case, we tend to have an empathic understanding of the fear of rejection, often leading us to say yes to spare their feelings.

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We don’t know how to stand up for ourselves

Growing up, most of us are taught to be respectful and agreeable:

  • “Don’t question authority.”
  • “Keep quiet and listen.”
  • “Follow the rules.”

It can become difficult to recognize when we’re sliding down the slippery slope from respecting others to not respecting ourselves.

When you constantly say yes to everybody, you set yourself up for exploitation.

People will see you as an easy target, a pushover, and start taking advantage of your agreeableness.

Take, for example, a slacking colleague at work who asks for your help completing a task, knowing that you’re a diligent, productive employee.

You say yes, of course, because why wouldn’t you? Then he comes again. And again, and again, without offering anything in return, sapping you of the time and energy to continue doing your own work to the best of your ability.

Often without even realizing it, we get used and abused because we just don’t know how (or when it’s appropriate) to stand up for ourselves.

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Why You Should Learn to Say No

As we learned earlier, many of us have a hard time saying no in part because it’s evolutionarily ingrained in us. But just because something is the way it is, doesn’t mean it ought to be.

Don’t take it from me, though.

Steve Jobs once said:

"I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things 1 have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things." - Steve Jobs

But you don’t have to be the CEO of Apple to harness the power of no.

Here’s why you should:

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Saying no frees up time for yourself

This one’s pretty obvious, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and most of us have so much we want to do and accomplish with that time.

Whether it’s striving toward professional ambitions, working on personal passion projects, or even just finding time to rewind and relax, being constantly bombarded with tasks that help other people meet their goals doesn’t exactly help YOU.

Sure, you can help others…

But if you don’t make yourself priority #1, who will?

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Saying no teaches you to step out of your comfort zone

Like talking to strangers, taking cold showers, or giving an impromptu speech at a social gathering, saying no is an inherently uncomfortable thing to do.

And that’s exactly why you should do it.

Self-help gurus have raved about the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone for time immemorial, and for good reason:

When you routinely do things that are difficult, you’ll slowly build up the courage and confidence necessary to take on bigger obstacles in your life.

This means saying NO to fear and saying YES to courage.

When you say no, you’ll find that learning to do so will directly translate to an easier time in all other areas of your life… especially if you’re an awkward people pleaser like I was.

Things like asking your boss for a raise, asking your crush out (or, conversely, dumping someone), or giving someone negative but constructive feedback all become just a tad bit easier.

We are, at our core, social creatures, so invest in your social savvy and you will reap the dividends!

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Saying no teaches you how to be assertive

The world values people who take control, speak their minds, and are vocal about their needs and desires.

After all, if you want to create real change, you must vocalize your idea first.

This is true everywhere from the corporate world (assertiveness is a strong predictor of career advancement) to school (every group project needs someone to take the reins) to sports (great players need to be assertive to lead) to even your interpersonal life (imagine how annoying social outings would be if everyone in the group just said, “I’m okay with anything; you choose!”) and everything in between.

Consider saying no as the training wheels for developing assertiveness!

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Saying no isn’t as bad as you think

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that many of the reasons that make it difficult for you to say no in the first place (e.g., being disliked or hurting the other person’s feelings) are mostly in your head.

Sure, there’s always going to be the odd person who’s overly sensitive and takes things the wrong way, but most well-adjusted people are used to rejection. It happens to the best of us in every facet of life, so what’s one more?

If anything, it might even make them respect you a little more… particularly if you were being taken advantage of before.

And if you’re trying to say no in a particular scenario, here’s what to do:

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How to Politely Say No to a Job Offer

This one stings, but being desired by an employer you ultimately don’t want to work for can be painful—you don’t want to get their hopes up, but you’re afraid of saying no and hurting their feelings.

The first step is not to get too worked up in the first place.

But if you’re past that stage, you might want to try one of these nos:

  • “I realize I want to work for you, but I don’t think I have the capacity at this point in time to give it my 100%. There are just too many personal circumstances I’m dealing with right now.”
  • “I’ve decided to go with a different employer for now; however, I appreciate the time and effort you put into the hiring process.”
  • “I’ve ultimately decided my commitment to my current employer is much stronger than I’d realized.”
  • “After taking some time to think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think we’d be a great fit. I’m looking for a different type of job, but I wish you all the best in the future!”

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How to Say No to a Date

Dating can be rough.

Luckily, you don’t have to say yes to every single one of them.

… Or do you?

If you’re struggling to find dates, then perhaps saying yes is the way to go. But if you know exactly who you’re looking for, and that guy or gal just doesn’t fit the billm, then you need a polite rejection. Add on the following in bold to make it a bit more gentle:

  • “I’m just not looking for a date right now, but we can just hang as friends instead.
  • “I’d rather focus on my work/school, as it’s my #1 priority. However, we can still study or collab together!”
  • “The timing is not good for me, as I just left a relationship not too long ago. But we can still keep in touch!
  • “Sorry, I have strong feelings for someone else right now. But I’m having a house party soon—why don’t you invite your friends, and we can all have fun?
  • “Sorry, I don’t want to ruin what we have. Let’s continue being friends!

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How to Say No to a Friend Who Wants to Stay at Your Place

Have you ever randomly received a text from your high school friend that went something like this:

“Hey, Vanessa! I’m in your city right now. I know we haven’t met in over a decade, but can I stay at your place?”

Uh-oh.

If you’re not feeling as generous as a CouchSurfing host, you might want to implement one of these polite letdowns:

  • “Sorry, there’s not enough space in my home right now.”
  • “Oh! I’m actually going to be out of town during this time to visit my relatives/for a work meeting/etc.”
  • “I just asked my spouse, and they said they’re really busy these days and would rather avoid having someone over—sorry about that!”
  • “We’re actually in the middle of renovating the home right now! There’s so much stuff around that there’s no room to fit an extra person. I hope you can understand!”
  • “I actually have my stepparents sleeping over this week!”
  • “My house is as small as a cardboard box—no more room left here!”

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How to Say No to Your Boss

Nobody wants to say no to their boss, but sometimes you have so much on your plate that piling on more work would seem impossible.

In that case, here’s how to say no without going overboard:

  • “I wish I could help you, but I have a rush project right now, and I’m trying to meet the deadline. I just don’t think I’d have the capacity right now.”
  • “In that case, can you give me an extra couple days to finish my other X project while I prioritize your task?”
  • “I’d love to help, but I already made plans with my family tonight.”
  • “I just feel really burned out now; perhaps after a good night’s rest, I’ll be more productive later.”
  • “I’ve really got to prioritize the Y project. If it’s not critical, can you please hold off on other tasks so we can prioritize this one for now?”
  • “I might be able to glance over it quickly, but I don’t think I’ll have the time to put in concentrated effort until next week.”
  • “This task sounds really interesting—I’d love to get to it! But I don’t think I can meet your tight deadline. Could we perhaps push it back to a later date?”

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Saying Maybe Is Okay Too!

If you haven’t noticed already, saying maybe isn’t exactly saying no.

Sometimes, you might really just need time to think over something.

Maybe you really want to help out on a project because it’ll benefit you too, but you’re not immediately sure how it would fit into your schedule.

Maybe you really do want to go out to a social gathering or meet an acquaintance for coffee, but you don’t yet know if your work schedule can accommodate it.

In cases like these, it’s okay to get back to them after you mull things over. Be honest and say, “I’m interested, but let me get back to you.”

The key here is to make sure you actually get back to them.

Too many people use maybe as a gutless way of saying no before ultimately either forgetting about the plan or pushing it off again and again until the other party finally gets the hint.

Make no mistake: if you do this too often, people catch on, and it’ll sour their perception of you way more than if you had just said no the first time.

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Wielding Your Sword and Shield

If you’re looking for even more say-no knowledge, check out this amazing TED Talk from entrepreneur and public speaking expert Kenny Nguyen.

With his analogy of “no” being the shield to the sword of “yes,” Nguyen argues that we should learn to fight strategically in the battle of life. When do we block versus strike?

Learning to wield our shield effectively, according to Nguyen, will result in sacrificing opportunities in the short term for even greater opportunities in the long term. As powerful of a warrior as you may be, you won’t last long if you don’t know when to block! 

Now…

Believe it or not, you can prioritize yourself while still maintaining social harmony.

The truth is, most well-adjusted people can take a no. They won’t instantly dislike you and they won’t be offended, especially if you’re respectful about it.

So challenge yourself to put yourself first. Learn to say no, and see how drastically your life changes.

And for further reading, take on this amazing article to really be more confident: How to Be More Confident: 11 Scientific Strategies For More

3 replies on “6 Effective Tips to Politely Say No (that actually work!)”

  1. R. Z.

    Thank you for the great article. I will definitely use these steps in the future. I am the one who struggles to say no most of the time despite the busy life. Especially love the one Do offer an alternative. I am trying to use it most of the time. It works!

  2. Valerie Cormack

    This was great! Thank you… would you be able to role play saying no? Maybe a few different scenarios?

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