How to Say No and Be Respected Without Feeling Guilty
Drugs, alcohol, energy vampires, greedy clients, persistent salespersons, and charity seekers. These are few of the many objects and people sucking your time, money, energy, focus, and life. For many reasons you do not say no and give in to them as you donate money, help another hour, remain at a venue, or answer a survey.
This is not just an article to help you be assertive – it is a complete guide about the psychology of saying no. Too many people struggle to decline an offer, say they won’t help out, or reject a dangerous substance with confidence. Forces like guilt, peer pressure, and an inability to assert oneself makes people say yes, which puts them in situations they later regret.
Saying no helps with two main categories of situations. Firstly, it helps to avoid what is asked of you because of personal preference or your inability to fulfill the request. This category of situations involves donating to a charity because you have already donated to them, helping a friend when you have a more important task to do, or working overtime when you are going on holidays. You enjoy helping people, but you cannot help due to poor time, financial resources, or mental incapacity.
The second category of situations where assertive skills protect you are made of events that endanger your well-being. This category includes situations with drugs, alcohol, excessive stress, and loss of family-time. You have the time, money, and energy to give, but the situation is more threatening than the first category and ugly implications deter you from engagement. Saying no is difficult because you are coerced into compliance with peer pressure, guilt, intimidation, fear, or worry about being perceived as weak.
Why You Must Draw a Line: The Necessity and Benefits of Asserting No
It is vital for your wellbeing and your relationships to draw a line – and not cross it – in either category. When you fail to say no, you become resentful, bitter, spread thin, and risk your health. Your poor ability to say no has indirect effects difficult to comprehend.
Two serious situations in the second category of scenarios is being pressured into doing drugs or sex. Never accept a life-damaging decision due to intimidation and peer pressure when you can say no. It is a bonus if the other person respects your decision – not a necessity.
Most situations do not have the dangers associated with drugs, alcohol, or sex. You are peppered with requests day-in and day-out. Time is limited to do the necessities and the little extras you want. You must say no to people to get through the day with sanity.
You must gracefully say no if you’re to become a successful, powerful, happy individual. This assertive skill gives you the freedom and control to put your efforts where it matters most. Tony Blair knew he had to lead the United Kingdom by turning down requests and making priorities. “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes,” said the former Prime Minister. “It is very easy to say yes.”
I frequently tell, or ignore, casual website visitors and even subscribers who email me requesting my help with their communication – not because I’m a prick (or maybe I am) – but because I cannot let my time be consumed in ways where greater opportunity costs exist. People pay me five figures to receive one-on-one coaching so it is unfair for them to not receive special treatment.
Freebie seekers take whatever they can from others with no respect for who they take from and no desire to return favors. Be wary of saying yes to these people. They can control your life.
Stop hurting yourself by doing activities that contribute nothing to your values and long-term aspirations (this is the best skill I believe to increase productivity). Accepting more requests than you can handle as your most important tasks get overlooked makes you:
- do less enjoyable activities
- feel agitated towards loved ones from your repressed passions
- feel unfilled and unproductive
- develop a low self-esteem from the “but-I-work-so-hard-and-don’t-succeed” syndrome
Your poor ability to say no has indirect effects difficult to comprehend.
Research proves the guilt that drives human compulsion to say yes, wears down the body through stress, exhaustion, and mental dilapidation, as depression and a lack of passion develops. “Saying yes when you need to say no causes burnout,” says Duke Robinson, author of Too Nice for Your Own Good. “You do yourself and the person making the request a disservice by saying yes all of the time.”
Your leadership with work colleagues, family, or participants of a social group improves when values are clear. Learning to say no will improve your leadership skills as you develop a better team environment where you appropriately delegate tasks. You avoid tasks because you “do them best” and no longer micromanage people – two common problems for entrepreneurs. People can surprise you with their skills if you just let them, leaving you to complete other activities.
When you get good at saying no, others begin to respect your time and make less requests of you. You train people to behave a certain way with you as they avoid petty requests they know will be declined.
Once you become good at assertively saying no, your words will pack power when you comply with the request – something people previously took for granted. The “yes” becomes a clear crest rising from still waters, ascending people’s expectations. Scarcity makes people appreciate rarity over commonality.
Why It’s Difficult to Say No
Your boss asks, “Can you please put in another hour at work?” Do you give in or do you make an assertive stand? You crumble faster than my poor baking by giving in to the demand. Why do you say yes too often? What can you learn from this to be more assertive?
Maybe you do not say no because you think it’s selfish. There is nothing deep and messed up about you. You most likely just lack assertive communication skills.
Saying no like all assertive skills and techniques is not selfish under appropriate circumstances. Assertion generates a win-win result. Assertion is not a problem; it is a solution to one. A lack of assertion causes a win-loss result as you suffer from poor health, regrets, and low quality relationships. Frequent assertion can be inappropriate, but most people are too passive and don’t need to worry about this problem.
If you are a rarer person who aggressively declines a request, you still find it difficult to assertively say no, but situations affect you in a different way compared to passive persons. Pressure, stress, and intensity of a request grows for you as it eventually becomes too much and causes you to shout, “NO!” or degrade the person through remarks like, “I’m not doing what you say” or “You can’t tell me what to do”.
A compulsion to give because of guilt takes away the purist meaning of giving, which is to donate happily and freely.
Aside from communication styles, the most common reason people say yes is their guilt. The moral and social emotion dictates them to follow requests and orders. Charity workers sometimes instill guilt or shame in people so the only way they can alleviate the emotion is by making a donation.
Guilt compels you to give – often a good thing, but harmful when you want to say no. When your decision to give time, financial assistance, or any donation is made to avoid uncomfortable confrontation or guilt, the motive takes away the purist meaning of giving, which is to donate freely for the benefit of others. Giving is best done voluntarily otherwise resentment forms.
How to Eliminate Guilt in Saying No
Guilt is not bad like other emotions such as anger and anxiety. It exists for a reason. Guilt tells a message you need to hear.
People feel guilty when saying no because they lack or have a conflict of values. When you passionately believe an organization such as a racist group does not deserve a donation from you, saying no is simple. You feel no guilt. Your values against racial discrimination make it easy to feel zero guilt in saying no.
Know Your No
Do you make the following common mistakes when saying no?
- You become argumentative. Solution: say no and shut your mouth. There’s no point worsening the situation.
- You interrupt. Solution: listen to the person first.
- You lose respect. Solution: think of something you like about the person. A disrespectful person doesn’t mean you need to reciprocate secondary behavior.
- You endure the unnecessary. Solution: call your local emergency number for serious situations or walk away.
If you feel guilty by not donating to a good charity (a gray-colored situation compared to helping a racist group), your values are misaligned. It’s not that you don’t have values about helping people and organizations. One value compels you to give money or time (“Good people help others”, “I want to help the less fortunate”, and “I can give to receive”), while another value tells you otherwise (“You can’t afford it”, “You’ve got others things to do”, and “They don’t need what you have to offer”). Selecting one value or the other makes you feel guilty because the other value is ignored. A conflict of murky values spawns an unclear problem. It’s no wonder guilt can create an internal mess.
You can overcome feelings of guilt when saying no with an awareness of conflicting values, then align yourself with your highest values. If spending time with your children is more important than work, you can eliminate guilt about not working overtime. If doing your most valuable task at the start of the day is more important than a recreational activity, you can decline your friend’s offer to play sport with him and not feel guilty. If good health is more salient in your life than drugs and alcohol, no guilt or peer pressure will compel you to consume either. Identification with your most important value lets you make the decision to fulfill that value and happily stand by it.
To rid lingering guilt, sometimes it helps to revisit important values. Recite what values are important to you and why (“I’m not taking extra work home because my family-life suffers when I feel stressed”). Heavy guilt like any strong emotion communicates a message that needs attention. If further guilt surfaces, the problem is more complex and may need therapy to solve.
Let’s now discover the “how” of saying no.
Body Language – Saying No May Be Unnecessary
Saying no in some cases is enough. Without good body language, however, a simple no may not work.
If your body language is assertive, your words will be more assertive. Body language strengthens or weakens any verbal statement. If you lack good body language, any statement will lack power to be taken seriously. When words and body language conflict, you can bet people accept the message sent through body language as truth.
I was frequently asked to work extra hours at my old workplace, a supermarket where I packed shelves. I often lied to get out of working extra time, “I have university in the early morning.” The truth was I wanted to get home so I could work on EarthlingCommunication.com. I hated packing shelves, hearing I must work faster (it was low employee morale), and being criticized for not meeting productivity expectations. Sometimes I got out of work with minor guilt, but other times I had to work. The reason a lie saved me from prison while other times it sentenced me to additional time behind employer bars was the nonverbal cues.
When words and body language conflict, you can bet people accept the message sent through body language as truth.
When we tell the truth, our bodies naturally communicate the message with confidence. When we tell a lie, our bodies naturally communicate the message with low confidence. For this reason, I recommend you avoid lying by saying no for a true reason.
If you decide to lie or just want to enhance the strength of any assertive message, I have three assertive body language techniques for you to follow.
First is a eye contact technique. When the request is made, look into the person’s eyes for two seconds, look away for two more seconds, and then back into their eyes before making your statement. This provides a “thinking gap” that lets them know you pondered their request.
Do not give them a blank “dumb” stare. Make it a look of thought. Once the four seconds expire, simply say no or a variation of it provided below. This communicates confidence in your decision and that you are unlikely to change. The person will be less likely to repeat the request after you use the technique.
The second important tip in saying no through assertive body language is keeping consistent facial expressions. If you were bored before the request, don’t suddenly be animated otherwise the person will know something is up. Remove smiles or frowns, raised or lowered eyebrows, and anything else that communicates a negative or positive stance on the issue. Generally, a boring face shows you are unaffected by the person’s request.
The third important tip to put your noes on steroids is to maintain nonverbal smoothness. Keep your demeanor consistent with your demeanor prior to the request. Speak at the same volume, tone, and speed you did prior to saying no. Make smooth, minimal, confident movements. Nonverbally communicate subsequent requests with the same response as your first no.
A sign of unease hints at a lie to compel the person to persist in the request. If you suddenly have a nervous twitch when saying no, alarm bells ring for the person who will likely persist until you comply. Switching the topic and using sarcasm are two indicators of unease. The only different movement I recommend you have is shaking your head side-ways to nonverbally communicate your assertive message.
10 Proven Ways to Say No
There are many ways to say no that I’m about to describe below. You can choose a version you think is best for the situation without tying yourself to specific words and phrases that most articles on this topic advise because the following variations to say no are concepts, not word-for-word statements to mirror:
Plain No. Guess what this one involves? All you do is say no and move on. It is the least effective method, but this stock technique can work in simple situations.
Mirroring No. This variation involves sympathy where you communicate an understanding of the person’s situation, then follow it with your declining statement. Understanding people increases persuasive power. Let’s say your child’s sports coach asks you to be the team manager. You could respond with a “mirroring no” by saying, “I understand you’re after a team manager. It must be tough trying to organize the team, but I won’t be the team manager this season.”
If you do not understand someone, the person feels disconnected from you because we value those who understand our situation, feelings, and point of view. A misunderstood requester reasons, “You don’t understand me so you don’t understand the situation. I better keep bugging you until you do.”
Reason-Why No. One Harvard psychologist in a study gave his partner in crime a stack of papers to photocopy. The subject was told to try and jump the photocopying queue through one of two statements. When the subject said, “Excuse me, I’ve got five pages. May I jump in and use the machine?” 60% of people complied. When the subject said, “Excuse me, I’ve got five pages. May I jump in and use the machine because I’m in a rush”, 94% complied. The researchers discovered that providing a reason with a request increases compliance.
Providing a reason with a request increases compliance.
If a charity worker asks for a donation, you can say, “No I won’t donate because I’ve donated to another organization last week” or “No I won’t donate because I don’t want to”. Reread the second example and you will notice something peculiar: the reason provides no new information just like “I’ve got five pages”. Everyone in the photocopying line has pages to print, yet giving a reason makes the request more persuasive because we comply more often when given a reason. (I just used the technique on you!)
The requester may use a similar variation of this technique on you. Be wary of the person who gives a reason for their request to stop yourself getting sucked into a situation you want to avoid.
You can use the reason-why technique in combination with assertive body language and another variation of saying no to really pump-up your assertive power.
General No. The “general no” prevents the requester feeling isolated. Your goal is to come across as if you would decline the request with anyone in that situation. The variation is great for people who request money. A friend asks you for a loan to which you reply, “Sorry, I won’t. I don’t lend money to people.”
Delayed No. Simply say, “I’ll get back to you at a later time.” Meanwhile, the person may find someone else to do the job or the problem may solve itself. You also give yourself time to think of what to say if the person makes the same request later on. The “delayed no” technique is great if you’re a manager, entrepreneur, or team leader when someone drags you from an important task. People may only come to you because you willingly helped them in the past. They often are capable of solving their own problems.
Conditional No. State the conditions that govern you accepting the appeal. Decline if the conditions are not met. Only use this technique if you are willing to accept the request because the person may align their initial request with your listed conditions. As an example of the conditional no, your boss asks you to work overtime to which you reply, “I can work overtime, but only for one hour. If an hour isn’t good enough, I’ll have to say no.”
Painful No. Emphasize the future pain the person would experience if you decline the request at a later time. If your boss asks you to take on an extra assignment, you could say, “For both our sake I’m going to say no. The quality of my work declines when I’m not focused on one assignment. I don’t want to give you bad work, hurt my position here at the company, and as a result, make you get someone else to redo the assignment at a later date.”
Solution No. Decline the request then suggest someone or a work-around the person can use to solve the problem. As an example: “I cannot go out with you tonight because I need to work, but if you need transport, there’s a good bus service near the shops.”
Be careful throwing another person in the hole you occupied when they might hate it. Connect people you believe will help one another and both will benefit.
Repetitive No. The “repetitive no” variation uses an assertive skill known as the “broken record technique”, which repeats a statement. Say the same “no statement” over and over until the person stops their request. People slightly change repeated requests, but keep the statement unchanged. Here is an example scenario:
“Can you help me move house this weekend?”
“I have to work so I can’t help you move out.”
“I really need help. Can you help me move house?”
“I have to work so I can’t help you move out.”
“It’ll only be for a few hours. Can you?”
“I have to work so I can’t help you move out.”
Respectful No. Firstly use one of the other variations to say no. If the person persists with their request, use the “respectful no” variation. Communicate your wishes for the person to respect your decision. “Please don’t make the same request again. I’ve said no. Can you please accept that?” Do this with compassionate body language to avoid coming across as aggressive.
There are many ways to say no without feeling guilty. Pick the ones you like suited to the situation.
Once you use the above advice, the last and most important thing you can do is be prepared to walk away. Someone could persist with a request only because you stand there. Some salespersons are ruthless and persist at persuading you to buy until you move to leave. Salespersons rely on your guilt to stay with them until a perfect moment that rarely arrives signals for your departure.
“No” is not a bad word if you know how to say it effectively with your body and words. Stop thinking this assertive skill is bad because such thoughts make you feel guilty. When you want to decline a request, you actually hurt the person and the relationship with resentment by accepting the request. Turning down a request you want to avoid benefits everyone in the long-run. If you don’t achieve that outcome, then you have something to be guilty about.
Joshua Uebergang aka "Tower of Power"
Joshua Uebergang, aka "Tower of Power", teaches social skills to help shy guys build friends and influence people. Visit his blog and sign-up free to get communication techniques, relationship-boosting strategies, and life-building tips by email, along with blog updates, and more! Go now to https://www.towerofpower.com.au/free/