The Art of Saying No

Warren Buffett: “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”

I always had a hard time saying people ‘no’. Perhaps you do too. The past of our psychology that desperately wants us to be liked by everyone around us. The amount of dopamine hits when we feel being liked can be addictive. I have always been a people pleaser and saying ‘no’ has always been challenging for me. This is neither a problem nor a flaw. In the past, we might have said ‘yes’ for the things that we merely want to do.

Not saying ‘no’ can be a very generous thing. Also, there is nothing wrong with being flexible. It can provide you a lot of benefits and help you out in different matters of life. But setting a boundary and not letting anyone cross it, is much more important. Remember that you are your First Priority. Giving people a helping hand is very good, but washing yourself in the process, and putting their needs before your own can be detrimental.

Take this scenario as an example:

You had a long and hectic day at work. You are dead tired and just want to go home as soon as possible, put on the sweats, watch your favorite show, relax and get better prepared for tomorrow. But then your friend calls and asks you if you two can go out and have a good time. She really wants you to go but you don’t.

Instead of saying ‘no’ and making the best decision for you, to stay at home, take your time and relax, you said ‘yes’ and went out. Because you don’t want to hurt her feelings.

While this is a harmless example, and one late night won’t affect your entire career, there are many times when saying yes does have a negative impact on your life.

If saying no is not life-changing, then why don’t more of us don’t do it? There are plenty of reasons:

Why so many people can’t say ‘no’?

Fear of Conflict

As children, our elders teach us not to go against authority. People expect us to do what parents, family, teachers, bosses, and even politicians tell us to do. We say ‘yes’ to things that we don’t like or don’t want to do out of fear. Also, we don’t want people to dislike us, conspires against us. As a result, a keen desire to please everyone develops and keeps on growing with every passing day.

Many of us fear conflicts. We don’t want people to be angry with us or critical of us. So, we avoid using the conflicting word ‘no’. Because we all know that nobody likes to hear ‘no’.  Whether, it is your intimate partner, colleague, or a manipulative boss.

Afraid of Being Selfish

Unfortunately, when you say yes but would prefer to say no, you’re saying no to yourself. On the other hand, when you say no when you want to say no, you’re saying yes to what’s important to you. That’s not selfishness, that’s self-love, and there is a difference between the two.

The desire to fit in and liked by peers pulls us. Research has shown that men and women have a tremendous need to belong to a peer group. Whether boy or girl, man or woman, we desire acceptance by our friends or the people we want to be friends with. On the way of establishing and maintaining a sense of identity, we stop prioritizing ourselves because we think it is selfish.

Don’t Want to Disappoint Someone

Sometimes we do things that make others feel better, even if it’s not quite what we want to do. We even say ‘yes’ to strangers too. I think it has to do with keeping up appearances. We want to appear helpful or can-do. Over time, you will start to resent other people when they keep asking you for favors. Your self-respect will also take a pounding. You may ask yourself, “Why am I happy to be a servant?” or “Why can’t I stand up for myself?”

Without even realizing that in an effort not to disappoint anyone, you will start to lose yourself.  

To Stand Out from the Crowd

Everyone encourages us to think “outside the box,” to focus on our unique talents and our personal truths. Most of us want to be viewed as special in some way, as different from the very group that we belong to. It is sometimes this need to be seen as a separate person that drives those of us who resist authority.

Such as a student shouted at his teacher “you are not my mother”. This kind of purposeful unacceptable behavior can backfire. It can make you stand out, but it can also separate you from the very group that you want to belong to.

We are being pressurized

Someone is using social pressure “everybody is doing it”, not telling the whole truth about a situation, flattery, or other manipulation techniques to put pressure on you to do what they want. Not everyone who praises you may be deliberately trying to manipulate you. Some people simply have very poor habits. Regardless, it’s important to recognize these behaviors in situations where your rights and interests are at stake.

Saying ‘No’ is Harder for Women than Men

Katharine O’Brien, a postdoctoral research associate at the Baylor School of Medicine, and Eden King of George Mason University conducted a series of studies, which concluded that women find it harder than men to decline assignments that aren’t part of their normal jobs. When women turn down requests from bosses or colleagues, not only are they more likely to feel guilty, they also face real backlash from managers.

The study of O’Brien says, the women who did say “no” fared worse in performance evaluations, received fewer recommendations for promotions and were considered less likable.

Katharine O’Brien Suggestions in Order to Handle Work Requests

She suggests two strategies that could help both women and men handle requests for their help.

  • The first is to say, “I’ll think about it and get back to you,” which can save you from a knee-jerk reaction.
  • The second is to consider what you would advise your best friend to do in the same situation, which may help you be more objective.

What Happens when you Say ‘Yes’ Instead of ‘No’?

Low Self-Esteem

Each time when you did something that others wanted you to do instead of your own desire, a part of you died. Little by little you will start to feel worthless and due to this your self-esteem will become more fragile.


When you keep on doing things to make the people happy, you will tend to ignore your true desires. That ultimately leads you to a feeling of inner loneliness. You will have a feeling that nobody loves you for the ‘real you’ but because of ‘what you do’.


By obeying everything that people ask you to do can be very hectic and can build extraordinary expectations among people about you. Leading people to ask more and more which can cause exhaustion and burnout.

Feeling of being a Failure

Pleasing other people comes with a price: putting our own desires and aspirations aside. This leads us to feel like failures for what could have been but wasn’t.

Low Quality of Outcome

The quality of our work can suffer because of this feeling of overwhelm.

“It’s only by saying “no” that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

-Steve Jobs

Carefully Choose your Network

It’s hard to say ‘no’ to things that don’t serve you if you’re surrounded by people who always say ‘yes’ and expect you to do the same.

There is a wise saying:

If you hang around 5 confident people, you will be the 6th

If you hang around 5 intelligent people, you will be the 6th

If you hang around 5 millionaires, you will be the 6th

If you hang around 5 idiots, you will be the 6th


Ways to Effectively Say ‘No’

Say no without using the word ‘no’

This method can be known as a soft method of refusing something. Instead of saying ‘no’ straight away, say something else for instance; “I’d love to, but I am afraid that I don’t have the capacity right now” or “I can’t right now, but I’ll check in a few days. Hope you understand!” Not using the word ‘no’ makes it less rude and this way people might not think badly about you.

Check Your Schedule

“Let me check my schedule” – similar to the above, it’s not a hard “no” and leaves scope to undertake the activity at a later date, but it’s effectively a no in the present moment.

Don’t Show that you are Available all the Time

If you make it seem like you’re always available, people are going to take advantage of you. Don’t be afraid of rejecting proposals you dislike or just saying you’re busy at the moment. You don’t have to brag that ‘how flexible your workplace is’ or ‘ don’t even have to tell everyone that you often have plenty of time to do personal stuff.’

Be Silent

Another way you can get out of things is by not paying attention to other’s demands. If you don’t want to do something that someone is asking for, you don’t have to say anything at all in response. Remember that silence is also a way of communicating. Sooner or later, they’ll realize you’re not always going to be there to please them. However, this cannot be the best way to say ‘no’, and this way people can also get angry with you. But defining boundaries is also important.

Tell them your Limits

When you explain that a request just doesn’t fit your values or lifestyle, other people will be more inclined to respect your decision. For example, if someone wants you to volunteer at their charity once a week, you could say something like:

“I’m afraid I can’t help you because I’ve made a promise to myself to take on fewer commitments this summer.” Or “I am dedicated to spending more of my time with my family” 

Suggest Someone Else

Somebody else might be more interested, or better suited. The request to check the person’s capacity is respectful to that person.

Illustrate Impact on other Tasks

When working in a corporate environment, you simply can’t say ‘no’. This might cause them to get angry or in a serious situation, they can also take action against you.

For example, a senior in your firm asks you to come to a business development meeting. It will take several hours out of your day. So you might say something like:

“I’d be happy to help, but if I do, I put feature delivery for my demo with Big Client tomorrow.” In this case, they learn about the demo tomorrow, which might cause them to reconsider their request.

Practice Saying ‘No’

Marcia Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), suggests practicing saying “no” in small, unimportant situations, like not buying something at a drugstore.

Refusal with a Positive Note

Use this simple formula: Start by thanking the other person for thinking of you, give a polite refusal, and then end on a positive note. A gracious reply that preserves your friendship, while making it clear that you will not be granting them a favor.

You could say, “Thank you for asking, it’s always an honor to be trusted by someone I really admire!

Unfortunately, I’m not free that day, so my answer has to be no.

It’s always a pleasure to be asked, though.”

Saying “No” is a skill that has to be developed over time. It can be scary to put your own wants and needs before those of someone else. At the end of the day, this is ‘you’, who is responsible for your happiness. If you will never make it clear to the people around you, they will keep on imposing their “to-dos” at you.

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Numira baig

Numira is an author of Blogsy and eloquent in writing about challenging and not-so-common topics. She is one of our editors as well.

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