How to Say NO when You Can’t Actually say NO

Jeffrey Keefer

Photo by Andre Mouton from Pexels

Do you ever find yourself in a situation when you feel a tremendous amount of pressure to answer in the affirmative, even when you don't want to?

It is so easy to fall into the YES trap.

Want to join us for drinks?

(I don't drink, but…).


Can you work me up some numbers for this idea?

(Even though it is not my project, and it is 5:00 on a summer Friday…).


How about we grab some wings and a beer?

(I have been vegetarian for a decade, and beer gives me a headache, but…).


Don't you just love how the President dismissed those critics while mocking his stupid, stupid opponents?

(Seriously, am I the only Democrat who works here?) Yes.

I'm selling Girl Scout Cookies for my daughter. How many boxes do you want?

(What are there, like four cookies in a box these days? Are the Girl Scouts even around anymore?)


This job will be perfect for you, want to apply?

(It would be perfect for me if I had no experience and did not have real bills to pay.)


Sound familiar?

Social Pressure Toward YES

There is enormous social pressure to say yes. We want to be team players. We want to be liked. We think we have to say yes to keep our jobs. It is often easier to say yes than to explain ourselves or our beliefs. We believe we have no choice and thus are compelled to say YES.


We can always say no, but somehow we are enculturated to say yes.

Saying no seems so final, so off. For many, in a social context, it can seem downright rude. As a result, we often say Yes or ho and hum until something in the context changes, and we can slink away in avoidance and not have to say anything at all. This is avoidance at its worst.

It is almost as if we have never been taught to say no.

The Magic of Words

I have learned over the years that there can be all sorts of reasons why we cannot say no, even when that is what we are screaming on the inside.

So, let's try something different.

The next time you want to say no, though you feel all sorts of social pressure to say yes, simply say: Let me consider that.

Here is the magic of words at play. Very few people asking you to do things you really do not want to do will push you for your agreeing to think about something—more than only think, to consider.

Asking for time to consider things is not a no, and it is certainly not a yes. If anything, agreeing to consider something gives you time to formulate a proper response, one that feels right and removes the social pressure for an immediate answer.

This is not a stall tactic, as people can see right through those. Instead, it is an opportunity to work with the request, perhaps considering others' ideas or options.

How can somebody fault or criticize somebody who wants to seriously work through something, even if that means an immediate answer is not there?

What harm is there in agreeing to try to work something out?

If anything, I propose that offering to consider something will set you above any suspicion. You won't be considered a non-team player nor one who stalls.

When was the last time somebody offered to consider your ASK, not as if they were pandering or really trying to avoid you, but rather in a way that demonstrated they take you, your ideas, and your request seriously enough to spend time on them? When people say they will consider something you are asking about, if they seem earnest in it, then it feels pretty good, doesn't it?

Practice Considering

This is what I want you to try.

Practice, "Let me consider that" in the mirror 10, 20, or 30 times. Let it roll off your tongue until it feels a natural response.

Perhaps then work with your spouse, significant other, or close friends, those who know what you like to do and not to do, and ask them to practice with you by asking you the same things you have agreed to in other situations that you really did not want to do. Have them ask the same things others, those at work, or even other family members with unreasonable demands, have asked you before.

It may feel odd to do this practice, though I imagine it is more because you are not used to speaking your mind rather than because there is anything wrong with what you say. In effect, this practicing alone followed by practicing with somebody else is the beginning of your habit of considering things instead of automatically replying in the affirmative. Habits are built through doing things until they are automatic.

Then try it when social pressure is against you. I am confident you will feel better about yourself for saying anything besides the yes you dread in those situations.

Implications of this Practice

Hey, you may surprise yourself, as considering things may well become not only a defense mechanism but also a more thoughtful approach to the world. Imagine how different our lives may become when we do not immediately respond to external requests in the affirmative, and instead, by taking an intentional pause to consider?

You will not answer automatically, hating what comes out of your mouth as you are saying it. Instead, you will pause with an acceptable response. The response of taking time to consider things, insofar as you are seriously doing that and not making it appear as a stall tactic, will build into your life a practice of thoughtfulness, helping you make better decisions on all sorts of levels.

Who could argue with that?

I want to hear how this works and how you adapt it into your natural flow and way of interacting with others. I bet there are other ways of considering things instead of immediately answering yes to those things you don't want to do!

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY

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