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How to Say No, Even If It Makes You Really Uncomfortable


Why is saying no so hard? Maybe you have the incessant need to please people a la Monica Geller in Friends, or maybe you’re just too scared. Either way, by saying yes to everything, you might be stretching yourself too thin and taking on more than you can actually handle. Even if you aren’t dropping the ball yet, continuing with the “never say no” rule could hurt your career.


“Saying ‘no’ is not something that comes naturally to the majority of people,” explains Susan Newman, PhD, social psychologist and author of The Book of No, at Fast Company. “For some, saying ‘yes’ is a habit, frequently an automatic response; for others, saying ‘yes,’ agreeing to take on whatever is asked, is an addiction.”

Linda Adams, president of Gordon Training International, writes that there are several reasons why we say “yes” to requests when we know we shouldn’t. In addition to the desire to please, and feelings of fear or guilt, there’s the expectation for reciprocation, feeling obligated, and the need for power (they’ll owe you one).

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But if you do feel stressed and want to change, maybe these tips will help.

1. Offer alternatives: Some people actually find the word “no” very rude and apathetic. If that’s the case, you don’t have to say an outright no. You could always offer alternatives: “I am unavailable to do this, but I think this person can help,” or “It’s just not possible for me to take this project on, but I do have some resources that I can share with you.”

2. Don’t give an excuse: When you share the reason why you are giving a no, you are leaving room for others to offer you solutions, so you can help them: “I can’t do it today because I have to travel” could lead to, “What about tomorrow?” If you just can’t offer any help, just say, “I’m sorry. I just can’t take on any more projects.”

3. Trade: If someone asks you for help and you could use some help yourself, trade services. Instead of taking on additional tasks, swap some work if you have confidence in your requester’s services. “I would really love to help, but I have this interview that I need to transcribe.” If she really wants your help, she will offer to transcribe for you, while you help with her request.

4. Be mindful of manipulation:  As Eva Glasrud advises in her answer to the Quora question, How do I say no?, be aware of people’s persuasion techniques: “When people ask for something and you say no, they increase the odds of when they ask for something else (again), you’ll say yes.”

5. Prioritize/ask to prioritize: In order to stay in control of your priorities, you need to first know them. Evaluate the most important tasks you just cannot postpone or drop. This will help you say no, because you will know that you cannot take on anything more, without compromising on your priorities.

Now let’s say it’s your manager who is piling work on you, and you are already swamped. The best way you can help her and yourself is by being honest: “I’m working on these four projects right now and am using up all of my bandwidth. I can’t wait to start on this new one, but to do that, I will have to reprioritize the projects. Could you help me with it?” At the very least, your manager will understand that you already have your hands full, and will hopefully not overburden you.

6. Practice: “No” doesn’t come easy to all. But once you start saying no, you will be able to take back control over your life. Start with some low-risk tasks. Say no to free samples of stuff you don’t need at the mall. Say no to extra helping of food. Start small and get familiar with the idea of saying no.

Tell Us What You Think

So how do you say no? Tell us your stories in the comments below, or by joining the conversation on Twitter!

Padmaja Ganeshan Singh
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