How to Say ‘No’ to Just About Anyone

Shannon Hilson

It’s not as impossible as it feels sometimes. You just need the right approach.
(Photo by Francisco De Legarreta C. on Unsplash)

Saying “no” is the type of thing that sounds easy on paper but isn’t necessarily so in practice. It’s something everyone needs to learn how to do, though. Life throws many questions at you — everything from “do you want fries with that” to “can you lend me some money.”

While it’s OK to go along to get along some of the time, agreeing to every request that comes your way is a great way to wind up in a world of hurt.

Now, I get it. It’s often easier and feels better to say “yes.” It’s human nature to want to be liked, and being a yes person is an almost failsafe way to do that. But integrity is also a quality people value in others, so it’s important to say “yes” only when you really mean it and know you can follow through on what you’re promising.

Here’s a quick start guide to saying “no” the rest of the time, even when it’s extra tough. You’ll be saying it like a champ in no time.

Be clear, but skip the excuses.

If you’ve ever worked in retail or sales, then you know one of the first things you’re taught is how to overcome a customer’s objections. That customer knows they don’t need another credit account or to blow money they don’t have on a significantly more expensive item than they planned on buying. But an experienced salesperson knows how easy it is to find a workaround.

People who make a habit of asking others for favors — even when they know they’re putting the person in an uncomfortable position — understand this, as well.

Even if people do manage to get that no out in the first place, they also often feel the need to make excuses as to why they’re not complying with a request. They say they’d really like to, but they can’t because of reasons X, Y, and Z. Sometimes, they take all the gas out of their no by avoiding the actual word altogether. Instead, they say, “I don’t think so,” or “maybe next time.”

That invites the asker to look for that workaround. They’re delighted to help you find a way to give them the yes you’re claiming you’d love to give, and they know that if they push hard enough, you’ll probably give in.

Don’t play that game. First of all, make sure you’re using the actual word “no.” You can make it more polite by saying “no, thank you” if you wish, but be firm. Don’t apologize for saying it or give in to the urge to justify it.

Say it twice if you have to.

No one likes having to repeat themselves, but it just comes with the territory sometimes. Many people, especially those who are chronic askers, are prepared to ask more than once when they want something. Some know that if you don’t cave the first time, you might if they press the issue. Others just aren’t particularly concerned with other people’s boundaries.

Stick to your guns and repeat your no. Just be firmer the second time, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Resist any attempts to press you for an explanation, as you really don’t owe one. If you have to say “no” a third time, add that your answer’s final and close the discussion.

Keep in mind that you’re the one in the power position here, even if it may not feel that way. Speak assertively — clearly and without mumbling. Make sure your body language matches your tone. Stand up straight and tall while making direct eye contact with the person.

Consider the opportunity cost.

One of the most persistent chronic askers in my own life likes to justify most of her requests by insisting they’ll take “only five minutes of my time” or assuring me that whatever it is will be “easy” for me. Other times, she waits until she knows I’m not working or otherwise occupied because “not working” means I must be free to do her a favor.

If you know someone similar, realize that what they’re asking for isn’t just a matter of the time or effort it will take you to complete the task. It’s also about the opportunity cost involved — the benefit you are giving up by spending your time and energy doing whatever’s been asked of you instead. It’s the opportunity you’re missing out on by taking a left when you planned on turning right.

For example, let’s say I planned on spending a free hour writing a new post for my blog so I can stick to my publishing schedule and Miss Asker shows up expecting me to do her a favor instead. The opportunity cost of doing what she wants is the blog post that won’t be written, as well as any additional benefits that might have come from getting it posted on time.

That said, it’s fine to change your plans to do something for someone else. Just make sure it’s what you really want to do and that the associated opportunity cost isn’t too high.

Let each yes be its own thing.

I used to have this online acquaintance who was also a writer. We initially connected on Facebook through my husband, and at the time, he was very eager to get some exposure for a book he’d just self-published. I was curious about his writing, had some free time, and was in the mood to do a good deed, so I offered to help him market it a little in exchange for a free copy. He took me up on it and was very grateful for the help.

Cut to maybe a year or so down the line. This same guy had written another book by then and came to me to ask me to repeat the favor I did for him before. Unfortunately for him, I didn’t have as much open room in my schedule as I did the first time. I was spread very thin between work and my personal responsibilities, so I did not have the time or mental bandwidth to read, review, and market another book for free.

When I politely told him as much, he wasn’t happy. He legitimately felt that since I could find the time to help him before, I could do it again if I really wanted to. He thought doing him one favor meant I owed him another one. That attitude (and the entitlement that came with it) didn’t work for me at all, and it ultimately wound up ending that friendship.

Saying “yes” to something once by no means requires you to keep saying it to future requests until the end of time. You’re allowed to change your mind or rearrange your priorities, and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Practice makes perfect.

The more often you do something, the easier it becomes and the more natural it starts to feel. As someone raised to be a people pleaser who never put herself first, it took me a long time to get comfortable putting my foot down and saying “no.” Yeah, it was anxiety-inducing and borderline terrifying at first. But it got a lot better reasonably quickly.

I had gotten tired of the chronic resentment I felt toward the people in my life who took up all my time and resources just because they could. I was sick of missing out on things I wanted to do with my time because I was too busy doing things for people who couldn’t have cared less that they were putting me out. Once I realized “no” had the power to give me my life back, I got a lot more comfortable saying it. Now it comes naturally without my having to think about it much.

At the end of the day, you only have one life to live. You’re the one who decides how you’re going to spend the limited amount of time that’s allotted to you. Save your yeses for things that will genuinely add value to your life. It’s worth it.

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Professional copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. Evergreen content on self-improvement, fitness, food, relationships, dating, freelancing, and productivity. Occasional hot takes on news, trending topics, movies, music, and television.

Monterey, CA

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