As much fun as Jim Carrey made it seem in his 2008 film Yes Man, it is not actually possible to say “yes” to everything. Many people struggle with the idea of saying no, be it to their friends, family, or bosses. We struggle with it so much, that if you type “how to say no to people” on Google, you’ll find a plethora of guides for navigating this profoundly uncomfortable experience.
Why is it so difficult to say no? Part of it has to do with wanting to fit in and be accepted. As social animals, others have a powerful sway on our behavior. So much so, that we often underestimate how easily we can get people to say yes, even to negative behavior.
In a work setting, we’re afraid saying no will shut doors, says Dr. Stephen M. Byars, Professor of Clinical Business Communication at USC Marshall School of Business. “We want to show that we can multitask and that we’re supermen and superwomen [who] can do everything that’s asked of us,” he states.
He also believes some of us simply like helping, “even if it means a sacrifice of our time and [...] energy [...] because we want to be seen as not just looking out for ourselves.”
Saying no is difficult but not impossible. Below, we present tips for learning how to say no politely, with examples. We’ll start with understanding why we need to master the art of saying no, and end with practical advice tailored to different situations.
Before we get into the more practical advice on how to say no, let’s first establish why it’s important to do so.
Knowing how to say no to a request is about setting boundaries, which are essential for having healthy relationships—personal or professional—and for avoiding resentment, writes famous author and professor Brené Brown.
Saying yes to everything also has measurable consequences in our lives. “Yes” usually costs time and energy.
When you are able to comfortably say no to people, you are effectively keeping control of how you spend your time. This makes it easier to focus on the commitments that are most important to you.
It’s not for nothing that many time management techniques involve some version of saying no. Entrepreneur and author James Clear describes saying no as the “ultimate productivity hack.”
Dr. Byars explains that “the risk [with overbooking ourselves] is that we will be overextended and we won’t do our very best job for a project.” While trying to seem like good workers/friends/relatives, we might actually be setting ourselves up for failure and end up looking worse than if we had simply said no.
Billionaire Warren Buffet famously said that “very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
So now you understand why it’s hard to say no and why you should still do it. It’s time to get into the details of how to say it effectively.
Unfortunately, there is no blanket statement you can use every time you need to say no. Politeness is often about consideration, and consideration means that you’re considering a variety of factors: the situation, the other party, and how your actions will affect them. A blanket statement is, in this sense, the opposite of polite.
However, there are certain principles that can help you to say no politely. Dr. Byers identifies being honest and having the possibility of making it up later (when it’s something that you want to do but can’t) as good strategies for saying no politely and effectively.
Other strategies include suggesting someone else, offering alternative arrangements, and giving a choice.
Let’s see these strategies in action.
An honest “no” is better than a misleading “yes.” You might end up harming people more or even burning bridges if you aren’t transparent about your availability or interest. Honesty can also help you avoid having to say no after you’ve said yes, which may make you seem unreliable.
A policy of honesty will also help you say no without feeling guilty.
Example: How to say no to a friend
If a friend asks you to do something that conflicts with your schedule, a straightforward answer should be enough: “I’m not free that day, sorry” or “I want to stay in this weekend, but have fun!”
If you feel so inclined, you can offer an explanation, “I have to help my mom with XYZ so I can’t meet up for coffee.”
Saying no to a friend can be nerve-wrecking but it’s important to remember that a “no” isn’t a complete rejection and it doesn’t have to be negative. Often, it merely reflects the simple reality of our limited time.
Sometimes, we want to do something but don’t have the ability to at the moment. A good strategy is to say no just for now.
Example: How to say no at work
Someone asks you to help on a project you are excited about but that conflicts with your current workload. In this situation, make it clear that your “no” is reluctant and leave the door open for a future yes: “Right now, I have to prioritize [X task], but I should be done by next Friday so I will check-in and see if you still need help.”
This not only signals your genuine willingness to help but also your proactiveness in finding a possible solution.
While you may not be able to comply with every request that comes your way, sometimes you can help by suggesting someone who can help at the moment. This can also reduce your guilt if you are prone to people-pleasing.
Example: How to say no to a customer
A client is contacting you for work that you are not interested in or don’t have the ability to do. Referring someone else who can do the job may help you avoid awkwardness and make you seem helpful even if you’re saying no.
“I appreciate the opportunity, but the rate does not work for me/I am booked for the next month/this is outside my scope of expertise. I do know someone who may be able to do this and can connect you to them if you’d like.”
Use this strategy only when a request is reasonable and when you know someone else has the time and willingness to help. You don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.
If a request doesn’t work for you as is but could work with some minor tweaks, offering an alternative is one of the easiest ways to say no.
Example: How to say no to family
Your mom wants you to help her sort her photo albums on the weekend you schedule some much-needed rest. Rather than giving up your me-time, you can offer an alternative: “I’m doing a self-care weekend, but I can help you next weekend.”
When you can’t give an outright “no,” providing the requester with a choice can let them know that you are not fully available while simultaneously placing some of the responsibility on them.
Example: How to say no to your boss
“It’s hard to say no to your boss,” Dr. Byers says, “particularly if it seems like it's a legitimate task.” This is especially true in times of economic downturn, when the job market is stable and people are worried about losing their job and not being able to find another.
If your boss asks you to take on additional work when you are already bursting at the seams, he suggests saying something like “I have these other projects and if I take this on, that will put at risk my ability to make the deadlines for these three other projects [...]. Could I wait to take this task until I finish one or two of the jobs you currently have me working on?”
By making it your boss’ choice, you are keeping your workload manageable without risking your image as an employee.
No matter what strategy you choose for saying no efficiently, it is important to always be nice and polite. When you are establishing boundaries, personally or professionally, being polite will make people feel more inclined to accept your “no.”
If you start yelling at your coworker for asking you to help, you are jeopardizing your relationships and your reputation and giving people an actual reason to resent you.
Another important factor, according to Dr. Byers, is having a good track record. If you are constantly saying no to friends or at work, you’ll stop getting invites or develop a reputation for being unhelpful.
On the other hand, if you usually do your best to help, it will be easier for you to say no without feeling guilty and for people to accept that no without changing how they view you.
In the end, it’s also not just on you to make this a pleasant interaction. If you are following the advice above but still being met with anger and pushback, know that it is a sign that saying “no” was the correct choice. Remember that making everyone comfortable is not your responsibility, and that you have to guard your energy and your time.
Professor of Clinical Business Communication at USC Marshall School of Business
Dr. Stephen M. Byars
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