The Courage To Say No

By Leslie Shore

November 29, 2016   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man


The courage to say no comes from an understanding of your own boundaries and the fact that saying no actually saves you from personal or professional harm. It is better to say no than to say yes and be crushed under the stress of possibly producing a poor product or disappointing the requestor.

When we say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’ it’s because we’re afraid of disappointing someone, or we think it will affect how we are looked at as an employee or friend. A YES in that situation isn’t a sincere ‘yes.’ It’s not an honest ‘yes.’ It’s a YES out of fear. So a NO that is coming from healthy boundaries is better in the short and long run than a yes that is fear driven. It takes courage to say NO.

We can keep from saying yes when we mean no. Take a breath. Give yourself a minute to think and say to the person, “I need to think about that for a moment,” or “I need to see whether it’s possible. I need to check my calendar.” Being an automatic YES without any intervening thought trains everyone in your circle to request things of you because you always say YES. Be honest with yourself in order for the requester to lessen requests over time.

I learned how to say NO when I got breast cancer. Being a “do-er” and a people pleaser for 55 years had me at an automatic “YES”.

Once I was in Chemo and Radiation, I had to say NO because I didn’t have the energy. It came as a surprise to me that the people closest to me, whether personally or professionally, didn’t have an issue with me saying ‘no.’ I was so in my head about disappointing others than I was really in fear of what NO would mean in terms of my relationships.

When to Say No


In our culture, it is the norm to give an immediate answer to a request. Because of that, we sometimes don’t think or take into consideration our own needs and boundaries. Having a sentence or a particular body language that allows you to think before you speak is probably the most important first step in the process. Having had that time to think, your explanation will come from a point of sincerity which always lands much better in the requestor’s mind and heart.

A few good sentences to use if the unexpected request needs you to quickly answer are: 1) “I’m sorry, I’ll have to check a few things before I can give you an answer,” or 2) “I’m not sure if a can do that. Can I get back to you?

Both of these allow you to defer a definitive ‘no’ while you prepare your reason. Respect dictates you get back to the person who asked, but at least you will have an answer with which you feel comfortable.

How to say no

The depth and kind of relationship you have with the requestor affects the way in which you say no. At work, take into consideration whether the person is above you, equal to, or below you in the work hierarchy. In a personal situation, take into consideration whether they are family, friend, or acquaintance. In a social situation, think of how will it affect building a relationship or expanding your network.

When people request something of you, if the ‘no’ comes off as a personal rejection, the requestor feels disrespected, angry or hurt. So it is how you couch the ‘no’ that counts. Give yourself a moment to strategize your response. Here is a three-part strategy to use.

1) Thank them for asking you: “I’m flattered, I’m glad you thought of me.”
2) Choose a ‘no appropriate to the situation and relationship
3) Give them an option if you can

What you are trying to do is let the requestor know that you’re flattered but at this point, you cannot do what they are asking and you are giving them an option.

At Work

say no

“Thanks for asking me, but I have so much on my plate, I cannot take on anything else at this time”

“I’m flattered by your request, but I have projects with imminent deadlines I need to attend to.”

“Thanks for the offer, but as I am busy, perhaps John could help you, as he has the skills you need.”

“I’m flattered that you thought of me for this _____. However, my plate is full and cannot take on anything else unless you want to change the priorities of my current projects.”

“I appreciate being asked, but given my current workload, the quality of our product would suffer if I took this on right now.”

“I appreciate your confidence in my abilities. However, as you know my current workload makes taking this on not feasible, especially if you need a quick turn around.”


In your personal life, the framing of the reason for the ‘No’ has to do with boundaries, honesty, respect and possible alternatives.

“Thanks for the offer, but as I am busy, perhaps John could help you.”

“What an interesting request, but I would not be comfortable doing this.”

“This sound interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to be of help.”

“I would love to accept, but I made plans for that date/time three weeks ago.”

“It’s an awesome opportunity, but I won’t have the bandwidth to do it for quite a while.”

Being comfortable in this area is a matter of practice. There are a number of strategies you can use to become comfortable.

1. Start by saying NO in your daily life in the smaller less significant situations to
gain the muscle of saying no.
2. Observe how people you respect say no. Model what you say using their style.
3. Practice saying no to people you feel comfortable with.
4. Every time you say ‘no’ successfully, celebrate the win.

Is honesty always the best policy?

Sometimes when the relationship is much more important than the specific situation at hand, it may be much more advisable to tell a “white” lie. A white lie told to protect someone’s feelings tends to be good for the relationship.

For example, your Aunt Chloe is a non-stop talker and she has asked you to go on a cruise with her. Although you never get seasick, your response “Aunt Chloe, thanks for the invitation to go on a cruise with you, but I get seasick so easily and nothing helps. Perhaps Aunt Jo would be a good choice,” saves your relationship and your sanity. There is no need to hurt or strain an important relationship as a result of how you say no.

There have been times where I have been invited to an afternoon social outing where I won’t know 90% of the people there. Although the person requesting would like for me to be there, I know that spending three hours in an uncomfortable situation will not fulfill her needs or mine. Even though I have no plans, a simple “Thanks for thinking of me, but I have plans that make it impossible to join you.”

See Also: Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?

Is there a Gender Difference?

Perhaps men are more direct, and women more sensitive in how they say no, but the reality is that men and woman find it equally distressing having to say ‘no’ when they know that they may be disappointing someone.

Lastly, it is well within your right to just say ‘No’ with no reason why. A simple, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” may be preferable, especially in situations where the request is time sensitive.

See Also: Saying No As Much As Yes To Enjoy Life More

Leslie Shore

As speaker, professor, and author, Leslie works with corporations, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and educational institutions in the development of inter-personal communication skills through workshops, facilitation, coaching and training in listening, communication, and cultural/generational diversity.

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