Self-development

Learning to Say "No"

by Intelligent Change — 6 min read

Learning to Say

Do you see yourself as a people pleaser? Not knowing how to say “no” even in an informal setting?

With blurred boundaries and a sense of privacy, we often find it hard to determine whether it’s okay to reject an offer. Is there a way to say “no” without hurting other people’s feelings? What can “no” mean in a broader sense? Let’s explore that topic further.

Why and When Is Saying “No” Hard

Some people find it hard to say “no” only when they’re in a work environment, while for others it spreads through various spheres of their lives: family life, social life, relationships…

Regardless of whether you have trouble setting boundaries in general or just in selective circumstances, there are various reasons why not knowing how to say “no” is bad for both you and the people around you:

  • It can overwhelm your schedule, which can lead to burnout.
  • You can end up engaged in things and relationships you don’t enjoy.
  • You’re being dishonest to others and to yourself.
  • The more you say “yes”, the more (unwanted) offers you receive.
  • You lose control and personal sense of boundaries.

And the list goes on.

Of course, there’s also a list of “rational” explanations for why we’re unable to reject others’ offers:

  • We fear conflict;
  • We fear disappointing the other side;
  • We want to feel accepted;
  • We suffer from the fear of missing out;
  • We want to leave the impression that we’re capable and talented, so we accept to engage in various activities.

If you recognize these motives and feel like you’re struggling with taking control over your life, it’s time for you to learn how to say “no” and set some boundaries.


The Art of Rejection: How to Say “No” Without Hurting Others’ Feelings

According to Eric Berne, the creator of Transactional Analysis, one of the most prominent schools of psychotherapy in western countries, humans have three so-called “ego states”:

  • Parent;
  • Adult;
  • Child.

The Parent ego state contains all the moral lessons and behaviors we’ve learned from our parents. The Child refers to behavioral patterns from our childhood we keep repeating today, while the Adult contains our capacity to act rationally, be responsible, assess our environment, and make decisions.

As we interact with people, we switch between ego states and take various social roles.

Those with a dominant Parent ego state often become “Rescuers”, believing they are responsible for other people, and that their duty is to help everyone, so they don’t allow themselves to say “no”.

People who spend a lot of time in the Child ego state can become “People pleasers”. Their inability to say “no” probably originates from their never-ending desire to please their critical parents.

Although both Parent and Child ego states have their beauties and are responsible for our moral compass, playfulness, and creativity, spending too much time outside of the Adult ego state can have negative implications on our lives, and one of them is the inability to say “no”.

Here’s what you can do to return to balance and act more rationally and in your own favor.

Plan Ahead and Be Honest about Your Plans

You’re not obliged to elaborate your plans to anyone, but having a meticulously designed schedule can help you be more honest and realistic about your free time.

The art of saying “no” is a lot about cherishing your time and appreciating yourself. Take a peek at our step-by-step guides on how to set achievable goals, have your best year ahead, and how to plan your day and weeks to find out how to formulate personal goals and how to organize your time.

Furthermore, The Productivity Planner and Focus Timer are two excellent organizational tools based on proven time management principles. It helps you set clear boundaries through planning, prioritizing, time management, and reflecting.

“Let Me Get Back to You in a Minute”

Try replacing the instinctive “yes, sure, no problem”, with “let me get back to you in a minute” phrase.

As you’re “away” for a “minute”, take a deep breath and try to figure out whether you really want to say “yes” or “no”.

Delaying an answer can help you control the impulse to be servile and gives you time to form a rational decision (enter the Adult ego state).

As you’re taking a few moments to yourself, try to separate rational from irrational:

  1. What does your gut say? Do you feel excited to participate in this offer, or does it feel repulsive? Open your Productivity Planner: do you have time to squeeze this offer into your schedule?
  2. Is this a one-time thing, or a long-term commitment? Do you have time for long-term commitments?
  3. If you feel like saying “yes”, are you saying it because you want to please the offerer, or because you’re interested in the activity itself?
  4. If you feel like saying “no”, but the feeling is accompanied by guilt and/or fear, can you determine the origin of those emotions?
  5. Once you’ve reached the clearest possible state of mind, get back to your offerer and tell them what you’ve decided.

    Analyze Your Ego States: Which One Is Speaking for You?

    We strongly recommend reading Eric Berne’s book Games People Play. Or, any other of his books, as they all have a short recap of his transactional theory in the introduction (so any reader can easily get the gist).

    Understanding the various roles both us and other people take as we switch from one ego state to another can help us make more rational, informed decisions about the way we want to spend our time.

    It’s not only Berne’s books. The more we know about our emotional life, the more we’re able to recognize patterns, correct our behavior, take control, and set healthy boundaries, without feeling guilt or fear. Knowledge helps us not only redefine but also reinvent the world around us, as it gives new meaning to things.

    Give an Alternative Offer: The Compromise Solution

    How to Say No

    If your decision is to say “no”, but you’d like to compensate the person somehow, proposing an alternative offer could be an excellent way to find a middle ground.

    For example, you can propose a different time for the same activity or a different activity.

    What do we mean by this?

    A compromise solution is one that doesn’t involve your full participation, but rather partial or side involvement. You can also suggest that someone else take the role you don’t want to commit to, someone you find more suitable.

    In order to explain this concept better, we’ll share a couple of examples with you.

    EXAMPLE #1

    As much as I’d like to, I won’t be able to schedule an interview with my boss for you next week, but I can get you her assistant’s contact. He can give you all the information you need about the upcoming project.

    As you can see from the example, you can successfully maneuver avoiding the actual activity by delegating it to someone more competent for the role.

    Of course, before doing so, make sure to consult the other person!

    EXAMPLE #2

    I won’t be able to make it to that party with you tonight, but, if you’re interested, I can spare an hour to grab coffee with you this afternoon? Or, if you really feel like going to the party together, we can postpone it for next weekend when I’ll have more free time.

    You can use this alternative solution when you want to participate, but you really don’t have the time. Before offering it, make sure that the other options you’re offering are something you genuinely want to do.

    EXAMPLE #3

    I can’t take on any extra workload this week, my plate is already bursting full. But, if you need some help with your stuff, I can cover for your next Monday?

    This kind of answer reveals compassion, empathy, and willingness to assist the other person, but without violating your own principles and boundaries.

    As you can see, by offering compromise solutions you’re not really “no-ing” the other person, you’re showing interest and offering collaboration, but under terms both of you are okay with.

    Cushion the “No” with a Compliment or Kindness

    That’s such a good idea, but I won’t be able to make it.

    I’d love to, but I can’t.

    I really appreciate you asking me, but I’ll have to pass this time.

    If you want to be gentle about saying no, these are your phrases.

    The basic idea is to reject the person, but be kind at the same time.

    For example, you can thank them for thinking about you, but then say that you can’t participate. You can praise their idea, but explain that you’re not interested.

    Here are a couple of examples.

    #1 Alternative Offer Combined with Cushioning

    Wow, that sounds like a great project! Really well-thought-out idea, excellent opportunity to do something big. But, did you ask Martha from finance? I think she might be more suitable for the role. I’d have to pass, honestly, I already have a lot on my plate.

    #2 Cushioning Without Explanation

    Thank you so much for considering me! I feel flattered. However, this is not a good time for me to engage. Sorry.


    Final Words

    Although most people find rejecting other people unpleasant and unkind, think of it this way: if you don’t do it when you need to do it, you’re being unkind to yourself.

    Learning how to say “no” is a crucial life skill that can save you a lot of time and energy. At the same time, it will make you look more professional and confident.

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