How To Say No

We’ve all been told a million times not to put too much on our plates, to be protective of our time, to prevent getting stressed out, to say no more often. But based on a whole lot of emails from overwhelmed readers this month, it seems like we’re not very good at saying no. : )

At least, I know I’m not.

It would be one thing if our to-do list was full of items that felt frivolous (though that’s certainly a relative term); it would be easy to say no to something like shop for ski pants, because I have no plans for skiing this year. But it’s really quite difficult to figure out what to eliminate when the things in our life, the things on our plate, are good, worthy things — like exercising, calling a friend who needs to talk something out, bringing a meal to a neighbor who just had a baby, volunteering in our 1st grader’s classroom, taking on some of the work load of a co-worker who has a sick parent, picking out a birthday present for our husband.

Which thing should we say no to? Which ball should I drop, guilt free?

As we neared the New Year, my Facebook friend, Morra, wrote a status update asking:

“Wise friends: Do you have a graceful and powerful method of saying NO (in a professional setting). For example, one business powerhouse told me she learned to say no by writing down her goals for the year, and literally carrying them around. “Every time something comes up, I can say, Does this help me achieve a goal? If the answer is no, I say no. And if I’m trying to convince myself to say yes, it’s probably a no.”

What’s your method? How do you say no to something without waffling, guilt, or raising the ire of another person?”

The replies are wonderful! Well worth a read. A few of my favorites:

– “If I’m struggling, I picture some of my mentors who are great at focusing and ask what they would say if I told them I was taking on whatever the new item is.” — Andrea

– “What am I willing to say no to, in order to say yes to this?” — Lauren

– “I would not want someone to say yes to me out of guilt so I don’t allow guilt to determine by decisions.” — Samantha

– And a recommendation to read this article titled: No “yes.” Either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.”

Now, if you’re up for it, I would love to discuss the same thing with you. Do you have a tried and true way of saying NO, either professionally or personally (or both!)? Have you figured out a way to say no without feeling guilt? And how do you handle having too many “good” things on your plate? I would love to hear your thoughts! And I’m sure anyone reading will benefit from your ideas.

55 thoughts on “How To Say No”

  1. I struggle with this (professionally and personally) and would love to hear others ideas! One I try to use is “By saying no to this, what am i saying Yes to to?” (by saying no, i can do a better job giving my full self, delivering on something else i already have on my plate/ really care about)

  2. One friend suggested that when we have to say no to something, we take the opportunity to benefit another person by suggesting their services- especially if we can help another woman, a small business just starting, etc.

  3. I am in the season of many small children. I have three questions.
    Do I want to? Do I need to? Would I rather take a nap?
    The look on a fellow parents face when I looked at the preschool playdough making sign up sheet and said aloud “no, I don’t want to make playdough” tells be I have hit something (and gave her permission to say no too)
    I saw one movie last year, because a three hour nap was better than anything on the screen.

    1. Super smart that you understand that this time in your life is a season and your priorities have to adjust accordingly. I was the same in that phase — naps were like gold! : )

  4. Shannon Simonsen

    A dear friend and someone I strive to be like gave me the following quote on a day where the feeling of being overwhelmed was so clearly written on my face.

    “Have you only learned from those to whom you said yes, have you never learned from those you said no” -Walt Whitman (she credits this quote to him, but I’ve never been able to confirm it)

    I have it on a post-it by my computer and refer to it often when figuring out how to best balance, work, home, social and community commitments.

  5. I had Grave’s disease twice, after each of my previous pregnancies (hyperthyroid) and it made me anxious, overwhelmed, a terrible wife, and pretty much a walking disaster. However, the second time I got it, since I knew what the symptoms were I cut way back on life. I let myself hide in my bed if I needed to, I almost eliminated long-cooking dinners. Because who cares if you have cereal or sandwiches for dinner? No one. That experience taught me that going back down to basics is OK. No need to feel guilty about it. And if I can go down to basics and be OK, then cutting out other things for my or my families sanity is perfectly fine. And if I really feel like something is worth my time or not and I’m debating, then I talk to my husband or another level-headed trusted friend and ask them what they think. Surrounding myself with loving people who want my success and sanity has been priceless – and those people are great sounding boards.

    1. “Surrounding myself with loving people who want my success and sanity has been priceless – and those people are great sounding boards.”

      Sounds like a brilliant strategy!

  6. I have developed a personal mission statement and listed off my core values on that document. The majority of my daily activities must line up with those core values. I also have a husband who is very good at saying–“you don’t need to be doing that. That isn’t what is best for you.” Last year we made some big decisions about school for our kids, work for me, even the arrangements of rooms in our home in order to better align my daily activities with my core values. It’s been AWESOME!!!!! I feel alive again! It took two years to clarify my core values and then rearrange life to fit them. But it is well worth it.

    1. Thank you for saying it “took two years to clarify my core values and then rearrange life to fit them” I often feel rushed, or like a failure if all the changes don’t happen in some absurd time frame, like a weekend! This helps so much to hear from someone who kept at it and emerged on the other side feeling awesome!!! Now I can give myself space and support to persevere. Being gentler with myself, and having a sense of humor about myself, has been helping, too.

      1. I can’t remember who said it–but here it is: we vastly overestimate what can be done in a year and underestimate what can be done in five. That statement really helped me to stay realistic but stay committed.

    2. I love this, too, and think it would make for an awesome post. I’d be really interested to read more about how you defined the mission statement and core values (and what they are, just as an example and recognizing they won’t be the same for everyone), and what kind of changes were made in your life/home to support it!

  7. If it’s an event that I don’t want to attend, I just say that I have other plans, and I do. I plan to be hanging out with my family, spending time alone, etc. There’s nothing wrong with just having plans to relax.

    If it’s work related, I often say that I can’t do that now, but would another time work, what’s your deadline, can I give you part of the work now and push the rest to a later date, etc. Though I really like Rachael Telford’s suggestion to recommend another person’s services.

    And if it’s my kids, my favorite is, “See that man over there? He’s very nice, and he’ll help you. His name is dad.” (My husband is great, but the kids always come to me first.)

  8. Oh man. This post is so timely! I feel like I am literally being crushed beneath the weight of everything I have to do just to keep my family alive. I told my husband today that I need time to do a massive planning session just to organize all of the things that are constantly on my mind (older kids’ school issues, figuring out a sleep schedule for my 4-month-old, job search, stuff we have to do before putting our house on the market…even stuff as basic as a month of meals planned out so I don’t have to think about it on a weekly basis!). I keep telling myself that this is not my season to do xyz but SOMEDAY I will be able to…that helps with the guilt a little!

    1. “I feel like I am literally being crushed beneath the weight of everything I have to do just to keep my family alive.”

      I know that crush so well and wish I could come and relieve some of the pressure. You’re so smart to remember this is a particular season. Those new baby years were so challenging to me!

  9. I have two ways to say no that I use the most: “I’m unable to commit to that in a way that I would feel happy with, so I must decline.” (This is my backup.)

    Usually, I say: “I’m overcommitted right now; I am going to give someone else the opportunity to be involved with this.” Then I suggest someone whom I actually think would be great and might say yes.

    I say NO all the time. No guilt. But my mom says I don’t feel anxiety about saying no because I say yes to a lot. Maybe there is something to that?

    1. Betsy! I love both of your noes! I am writing them both down in my notes and hope to find myself copying you.

      And I like your closing thought too. I do say yes to so much! And I should use those yeses to ditch the guilt of the noes.

    2. Betsy, your mom’s thoughts resonate with me. I have absolutely no problem saying no, and maybe that’s because I do say yes a lot, but the yeses are aligned to my values and skills/ interests :)

  10. I’m working on allowing “no” to be a complete sentence; most times, it turns into “that’s not going to work out”. :) Sometimes, though, I find it equally difficult just staying quiet. For instance, when the call goes out for volunteers, and I don’t want to say yes, but I’m worried or feel guilty that nobody else is going to step up. Does that make it a better fit for me? Almost never! So that’s another thing: passive no. Uncomfortable, but totally worth it!

  11. I struggle the most when it’s some kind of girls night, and I would rather stay home with my husband. I’m not sure how to say that without hurting anyone’s feelings.

    In an email thread a few months ago, one of my friends said she couldn’t make dinner plans because she was “spending the weekend with Rodney” (her husband). I haven’t figured out such an elegant response. But it was refreshing to read.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. Hah! No connection. I just wanted a pretty photo for the post. I snapped this one in Norway — a trip I barely reported on, because we moved back to the U.S. shortly after. But oh! it was a good trip.

      My apologies if the photo seemed like some sort of puzzle to solve. : )

  12. I had parents that were very involved in parent booster organizations from junior high on, as well as taking on increasing roles at church. They wore these volunteer opportunities like badges of honor, but honestly? A lot of misery came out of that. Parent politics, church politics, and then work politics and working/supporting/raising a family. I know they did it because 1) their parents were never available to do this for them growing up and 2) because they honestly thought that I’d miss out on opportunities inside these organizations if they didn’t. But their over-committment definitely had a negative impact on our family life, mostly my parents’ self-esteem.

    I wholeheartedly agree with those above who describe laying out goals or values, and then only agreeing to accept things that fit into your life. It’s like when they tell you that if the oxygen masks drop on an airplane to put yours on first before helping others. I think a good bit of the time a “no” is a “yes” for you. And it’s ok to put yourself first more times than it feels acceptable. No one else can do that for you.

    1. My own mother expressed something similar to me. She took on the job of PTA president for a year, feeling it was the right thing to do for her kids, but later regretted it — the burden, the time. It wasn’t worth it to her.

  13. Calie Rodriguez

    I am usually a “yes” person at work, but when I say “no” for a legitimate reason such as too many other projects, no assistance with any projects, or is a project that is so intensive that I need to be cloned and it should come with a promotion (RAISE), then I get penalized. Essentially they wanted me to take over someone else’s job although I was already doing the work of at least 2 full time positions. Apparently me not being enough people isn’t a good enough reason to not take on 3 full time jobs and still have a hint of a life.

    Saying “no” sometimes isn’t an option even though “yes” is unrealistic and unsustainable. Hooray corporate America!

    1. So dang frustrating! Did you have a chance to see Hidden Figures yet? One of the women in the (true!) story is doing the work of a manager, but without the associated title or pay. And it just makes you want to scream!

    2. Calie, I think this is very common. Here’s what I do now: the day after getting a new project, I go back to my boss and say, “I need some guidance. Here are the projects I have right now, along with the time each will take me. Can you prioritize them for me?” Once she sees them all in a list, she almost always takes two things off my plate, or postpones them. Plus, I think she appreciates it — it’s a non-confrontational way for her to think about her own priorities.

  14. I learned to say “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that right now” and remain firm. I don’t have to justify or explain (even though I catch myself wanting to) unless it’s my boss or family. Realizing this has been so helpful. I’ve had push back a time or two, and I usually respond with, I would rather tell you I can’t than do a bad job. Again, I’m not saying I’m too busy, or don’t want to (which either or both my be the case.)

    It’s not perfect, and I sometimes still say yes when I should say no, but it’s easier to say no now.

  15. I’ve heard it described by a manager as ‘glass balls’ and ‘rubber balls’. You decide which are glass and cannot fall, and which are rubber and if they fall its okay; you just pick them back up.

  16. I love this thread/conversation!! Thank you for providing a safe place for all of us to share our anxieties but also come up with some great ideas and validation!

  17. I am really bad at saying no, and I have finally figured out that what works best for me is to be involved in a way that plays to my personal strengths, even if it isn’t what I was originally asked to do. I will not serve on the PTO committees, but I will help with events. I will not coach a team, but I will support and bring drinks. I resigned a teaching job to follow my dream of having my own business, but I am still helping out as a sub at the school. This method still leaves me very busy, but I like being busy, and then at least I’m not busy and resentful, or free and guilty.

  18. Sometimes I think my problem is not saying yes enough! Once you get really used to saying no (for valid reasons ie. previous time commitments, mental/emotional health, or just that logically there is someone else who would be able to do it easier/better) it becomes easier to say “no” to everything that is even slightly inconvenient. I have to make sure I focus on the people I really care about and say yes to them as often as possible, even if its a little bit or a lot inconvenient (family and close friends) while still saying no when necessary or when I’ve been burned by saying yes to the same person previously.

  19. I am known in my circle of friends as the one who says “no.” I think in a good way. ;)
    I am a mom of 5, an introvert, and I strive for low stress.
    In order to take something on, it has to have a good purpose and (here’s the kicker) ACTUALLY fulfill the purpose. For example, many parents think joining the PTA will help their kid succeed in school. But studies show that what you do WITH your child at home or school actually has a much greater influence on how well they do. So I say no to PTA involvement, but yes to helping at a class party.
    As far as what to actually say, I can hardly add to all these great ideas! I value when people are clear about their answer though, so I do the same. If you mean “no,” don’t say “maybe.” And don’t give a wishy washy reason that can be argued away.

    1. I have always done the exact same thing with PTA involvement. I decided early on that if I was volunteering at my kids’ school, I would put myself as close to my kids as possible. My goal was to know every single child in their grade by name. I figured that if the kids and teachers knew me personally, they would treat my children well. I helped with parties, went on field trips, taught jJunior Achievement, was a recess monitor, etc. I said yes to just about anything where I could be with my kids at their K-8 school. While helping at the 8th grade dance, I looked around and realized that i had met my goal.

  20. I struggle with saying no… It plagues me! (Right now I’m dog-sitting a friend’s really obnoxious dog for two weeks. The dog has been nothing but added mess and hassle to my already full load with three young kids. And I’ll likely say yes the next time. Saying no might hurt their feelings!). And there seems to be no winning: either I say yes and feel resentful, or say no and feel guilty. Oh the hours I have wasted trying to come up with a nice way to say “no”! I really like the simplicity of some of the suggestions (“I’m overcommitted so I’m going to have to give someone else the opportunity to help”… Brilliantly straightforward without providing too much detail!). I have to remember that saying “yes” to others means saying “no” to something else that matters to me (usually my family, sadly, and that bothers me immensely).

  21. Two things for me:
    1) Just because I don’t have a commitment on the calendar already, doesn’t mean I should slot something in there. We all need time to take care of ourselves, our houses, our families, downtime etc. Even if the calendar says we are free, are we really? Will it do us good to slot something in there or do us even MORE good to take that time to take care of ourselves?
    2) I realized after some infertility rollercoaster of miscarriages, surgeries, postpartum depression that the only people who need ME are my family. Everyone else needs a warm body with some follow through. Sometimes I’m willing to be that warm body with follow through. Most times I’m not. They just need _someone_, not ME. My family needs ME and if I’m not running on all cylinders, we all suffer.

    1. you’re right. it just hit ME. Why me, and not the next warm body with follow though. Duh. Gotta keep this one in check. thx!

  22. I returned from my honeymoon two days before Christmas this past year. I This gave me a great excuse to push all of the holiday planning and pressures until Christmas Eve. And then as we drove into the driveway it hit me- the monster planning conundrum I had created started rearing its ugly head. I had to do something.
    I sat down. I made a list of everything that I loved about Christmas. Everything that makes me feel like it’s Christmas time. A sort of make-Christmas-magical wish list. I asked my new husband the same. And then I looked at all our invitations, talked to all our sets of parents and relatives. (I come from a large and fractured and greatly multiplied family, so this took quite a while.)
    You know what happened? I didn’t get one ounce of overwhelmed. I was able to plug all the invitations in to different parts of my “Christmas wish list” and we ended up doing more than I would have imagined I would be able to do. It was a huge abundance of running around and a whirlwind of activity. It felt like the best Christmas since being a kid. The monster turned into fairy dust.
    When I started mindfully with my values, and then let everything fall into those values I didn’t have that stretched feeling.
    Okay, I had to take a day off with movies and leftovers after all that Christmas activity. And perhaps the honeymoon glow got me through a usually stressful time of the year. But I hope to keep our first Christmas as a lesson. A lesson on how to handle the pressures of starting and combining families.

  23. I have no problem saying no. Never had one. That is why lots of people think I’m arrogant, but for me it was a natural thing. It’s also hard for me to take bull***t from people and my mom said I was like thas since I was a kid, I sulked and frowned when I didn’t like something and said no. Obviously my parents, especially ma dad, thought it was an endearing trait and never tried to hinder it. With years this developed into a sense of entitlement for me. But in real world you have to balance and say yes sometimes, even when you don’t want to. If I’m overwhelmed with life, and I need my quiet break, I don’t let in any distractions, because if I give in, it sucks the life out of me.
    As women we are always seen as servants, and I don’t like it one bit. How many times after a 10 hour workday I haven’t answered my boss’s call, until he finally figured out that he should not be calling me when I have finished my work for the day.

  24. Jo Schaeffer-Crabb

    Highly recommend the book scarcity. It talks about the mentality of time abundance vs time scarcity. You’re asking the behavior question when mentality comes first.

  25. What’s been helping me lately is to really stop and think about times I said “yes” when I didn’t want to, and what the factors were. It helps to recognize that being hurried, overtired ad possibly buzzed from alcohol are risk factors for saying yes. Not to say I will eliminate those factors, but just being more aware – I’m vulnerable in this moment to being more passive – helps steel me. It also helps to think – look at all these other times I did have the guts to say, “no.”

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