How to Say No, Starting Now

October 16, 2015

Connect Member

Women's Leadership Development Consultant

Recently I moved out of the house I have lived in for 10 years and the town I have lived in for almost 25 years. I moved to a delightful, yet tiny beach cottage to begin my personal next chapter.

Moving is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Whether it’s downsizing, a new opportunity, or dealing with a life transition, moving comes with feeling overwhelmed and on the edge. As I was in the midst of preparing for my move, I found myself buried in the process of packing and figuring out how to donate, dump, or sell most of my possessions. For me, this was a time of letting go and of massive downsizing. The groundwork for this transition took all of my resources emotionally and financially, but perhaps most importantly, it took a lot of my time.

Just as I was getting it together, I received an email from my son.

“Mom, can you please update my resume with my most recent work experience? Here are a few bullet points, but I really need your help in pulling it together so that I can get out emails to set up informational interviews for a summer internship. I need to get on this ASAP!”

Then I received series of phone calls and emails from friends and family inviting me to High Holiday dinners and breakfasts in celebration of the Jewish holidays.

Then I received a lovely call from my cousin asking if I could join them in the city one night to see their show, a musical, which had just been accepted into the second round of a major New York City theater competition.

As each seemingly reasonable request arrived, I could feel a mixture of overwhelm, frustration, anxiety, and irritation from having to address each and every one of them. Didn’t anyone realize that I was in over my head in getting ready to move, that I was already experiencing a drain of my energy and resources just to get through this transition without the additional helpings on my already-full plate?

In my heart, part of me wanted to say yes to each request because they were asked by people whom I love dearly. But, despite feeling pulled to sacrifice my own needs in an effort to please everyone else, what I really needed was to say no and honor what ultimately was in my best interest.

Sound familiar? I know I’m not alone in struggling to say no.

We are a generation who can have it all, do it all, and be it all, but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

When we try to have, do, and be it all, it comes at a huge expense to us emotionally, physically, and energetically. It is time to learn to say no with grace and intention so that we can instead be the fierce and feminine leaders that our families, our partners, and the world need.  

It is time to say:

NO to commitments that don’t make us feel good — and I mean really good — and feed the soul in one way or another.  

NO to your children when meeting your own needs and desires will allow you to parent them even better than you already do.

NO to what think you “should” do rather than what you really “want” to do.

So, how do we say no to those we love and to requests that pull at our “supposed to and should do” strings?

Here is a four-step formula for saying no with grace and intention:

1. Be Kind

You don’t have to be aggressive or angry to decline a request or set boundaries. Kind communication is just as effective as speaking with a sharp or edgy tone and instead will leave you feeling better about who you are. You won’t be heard any more clearly by being unpleasant; you will only be seen as insensitive and unkind.

2. Be Clear

When declining a request or saying no, it is imperative to be clear about your choice. I know that it can be difficult, and perhaps feel awkward or clumsy to tell others what they don’t want to hear, but saying no means saying no. Not “I think,” not “ for now,” and not with a question mark at the end. You are choosing to say no and if you are unclear about your choice, they will be as well, and you may find yourself committed through a “misunderstanding.”

3. Be Firm

There is a strong chance that you will get resistance or a rebutting argument that tries to convince you to rethink your choice to say no, and it will be enticing for many reasons. You will be invited to feel guilt, responsibility, and perhaps even obligation, but you don’t have to accept these invitations. You can decline. When you have finally found the courage to say no, you will likely have to repeat this choice once or twice more. The best way to anchor your choice is to offer a firm, but not harsh, response.  

4. Be Compassionate

It is likely that your choice to say no will be met by someone else’s disappointment and inconvenience. While you are not responsible for this inconvenience, you are responsible for being compassionate about it. Articulating your understanding of the consequence of your choice may not be received with overwhelming appreciation at first, but it will go a long way in speaking to your honorable ability to say no with grace.

Learning to say no to what you don’t want is the fastest way to get what you really do. In fact, it’s a common misconception that success is built on a reflexive habit of saying yes. Maybe it’s a desire for chance, or perhaps it simply means we are afraid of being left out in the future. The truth of the matter is, saying no means respect for ourselves and confidence in our choices and needs. It is essential for self-care and overall well-being.

What can you gracefully say no to today?

Laura Campbell is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.