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How to say no to people

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve agreed to something that you really didn’t want to do?

Have you ever said yes to something you really wanted to say no to?

Do you sometimes notice that you’re not making time for yourself because you’re too busy meeting everyone else’s needs?

It might be that you often find yourself saying yes because you want to please people and be a “nice, kind person”. It might be that you’re saying yes because it’s a way of gaining approval. It might be that you’re scared of offending people and coming across as mean. People who struggle to say no often have low levels of self-esteem and can feel like they’re not good enough. I used to do it too!

People who care for themselves, know their own worth and are good at looking after their own needs are much better at putting boundaries around themselves and their lives. They’re much better at saying no to requests and commitments that could impact on their own wellbeing.

Here’s a four-step strategy you can use to help you take control and say no more often.


In other words, don’t give an answer straightaway when someone asks you for a favour. When you give an answer straightaway, you’re more likely to answer automatically from your unconscious programming, from an old pattern of behaviour and responses without thinking and because you feel under pressure.

When someone requests something of you, you can buy yourself time by letting the person know that you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them – maybe you need to consult a diary or talk to another person before you commit. Even if you say you’ll get back to them in 20 minutes, it still gives you time to consider what you actually want to do and what works for you. It gives you more control.

There are different ways you can buy yourself time: a quick trip to the bathroom can give you enough time to figure out what you want to do, what you're going to say and how you're going to say it or you can invent an urgent trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription for your nephew and you'll ring them back when you've finished.

An example of when this recently happened for me was my sister called me a couple of days ago and asked me if I’d house/dog-sit for her next week. It would have been easy for me to have just said “Yeh, sure, no problem” because I don’t want her to think I’m mean or selfish (my old, unconscious programming). But, I bought myself time to consider things by telling her I’d have to check my diary for the week and I’d get back to her that evening when I had my diary in front of me.


Now, that you’ve bought yourself time, you decide what works for you and whether or not you want to agree to the request.

And (the important bit) you do this WITHOUT THINKING ABOUT HOW THE PERSON WHO’S MADE THE REQUEST MIGHT THINK/FEEL/RESPOND. You make this decision as if it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks. The only consideration is you and whether you can help, whether you want to help and whether your boundaries are crossed if you were to help.

You make the decision, weighing everything up based on what YOU want to have happen as if that other person’s needs don’t matter at all – it’s your needs that are the priority (you can do this because you’re going to consider the other person in the next step). The important thing here is that you don’t allow your boundaries to be crossed. Whatever the situation.

To continue with my example, once I’d told my sister that I’d get back to her, I sat down with my diary and looked at my commitments for the following week.

I decided that I did want to help her out. I decided I did want to look after her dog and I’d quite like to stay at her house for a couple of days. But, I came to this conclusion rationally and after some reflection. I also decided that I only wanted to do it for two days and only stay over for one night. This was in case I didn’t sleep well at hers – one night of not sleeping well would be fine as I’d know I’d be back in my own bed the following night.

So, I checked my diary and looked at my commitments and decided I could offer to do Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, depending what would be most useful to her. I had a couple of local work commitments on Wednesday whereas all of my other commitments were phone or online appointments which I could do just as easily from her house.


Now you’ve decided how you’re going to respond to the request, you need to think about exactly what you’re going to say and how the person might respond.

You need to imagine any arguments they might give you, any persuasive techniques they might use, how they might try and get you to agree. You have to imagine what it would be like if they were to beg, plead and cry and how you would respond to that. You can use the mental rehearsal technique, Imagine the Difference (Module 1 Step 2), to do this.

It’s a good idea to rehearse what you’re going to say out loud in advance and to mentally rehearse the conversation with you sticking to your guns and being assertive, calm, respectful, caring and in control of the situation. It’s perfectly possible to say no at the same time as being kind, considerate and caring. You can care for and respect the other person at the same time as giving them a negative answer.

A good way to get confident with giving them your answer, if it’s one you think they don’t want to hear, is to

  • Mentally rehearse doing it (Imagine the Difference)
  • Imagine yourself in their shoes and being given the answer you’re going to give and imagine how you’d respond (most of us will happily hear someone saying no to us and will politely understand – and that’s exactly how someone will respond to you in reality – it’s only your imagination that makes up stories about how badly they might respond)
  • Understand that you engender more respect and credibility when you stick to boundaries and assertively say no sometimes than you do when you keep caving in to demands and requests. It’s much more indicative of someone who’s reliable, in control and on top-of-things when you're sticking to boundaries. I have a lot more respect for people who are up front and honest about what they can and can’t do than people who seem to be promising the world because they just want to be seen as a lovely person and don’t want to let you down

In my situation, I didn’t have to do any of this because I’m used to it and I know how it works. I was totally confident that, once I'd decided what I wanted to do, I could give my sister the answer that worked for me and that she would accept it. But buying myself time to reach the decision that worked for me, rather than feeling as if I was under pressure was important. When you’re first starting to practise this approach though, this practice and rehearsal stage is really important.


And stick to what you’ve decided. Get curious about how they’ll respond to you instead of worrying about it. Be prepared to calmly assert yourself (you’ll have already rehearsed this anyway). You’ll be surprised at how much people just accept what you’ve told them. Because you’ve clearly given it thought and because you’re putting things calmly and assertively, they'll just accept it.

When I told my sister that I could do either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday, she made a note of it and said she’d discuss it with her partner and thanked me for getting back to her. She was happy that I’d given it the time and consideration it needed and had got back to her as I said I would. She knows she can rely on me and that I’ll do exactly what I say I’m going to do. This approach also builds trust!

Each time you follow this four-step approach and carry through with it, you’ll get more and more confident and your life will become more and more under your control.



You can use this approach with any situation, any request, any context!

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