Learning to say no
Learning to say no

Learning to say no

Photo by Good Faces on Unsplash

I have spent the majority of my adult life learning to say no.

I am from a very close knit family, where I’ve picked up a “Yes culture”. I have never heard my father or mother tell one of their siblings “no” (unless it was for that sibling’s own good). Helping a friend, a loved one, or a family member is what the family does. So, I strive to help people all the time in any way I can.

It’s okay to say no

However, this kind of attitude sometimes hurts more than it helps. You can easily become a door mat. A welcome mat, serving everyone except yourself… and we can all agree that this is no way to live.

Saying no is not only about:

  • preserving your sanity;
  • knowing your limits;
  • understanding your boundaries;
  • making time for self-care;

but is also about you having the right to say no. It is okay to say no.

It took me some time to really grasp the concept that “saying no is okay”. You don’t always have to be on call for everyone (especially if they’re not on call for you… but let’s not reduce this to pettiness). Even computers which literally spend all their time serving humans, have to reboot; be serviced; have some kind of downtime. 

Don’t allow colleagues; friends; coworkers; or anyone else to guilt you into saying “yes” when you either really don’t want to do something or would prefer to decline because of whatever reason. Your time; space; energy is valuable. Don’t expend yourself endlessly, how will you recharge?


What it really means to say no

Saying no is more than just declining to do something, though; it is also about being confident in sharing your opinions with people when you disagree with theirs. My early work life was perforated with me being in agreement with my varying bosses and supervisors. I was the young girl, fresh out of University, who was there to learn how the world worked and they were the more experienced adults that would be my teachers. However, by my second (or maybe third) position I became cognizant of the fact that I was not just a young, inexperienced wildling (too much Game of Thrones) … but someone with opinions which should also be valued. A valuable employee with a voice that should be used and heard. 

It took me some time to really find my voice and assert my own opinions into conversation in the workplace. Agreeing to disagree is also an option and I use this often to ensure that the other party understands that I am not rejecting their opinion, I just don’t agree with it. We do not have to agree with everyone’s ideas; and not agreeing does not mean you have to be silenced. Friction = Change. 


Coming to this realization can only help us to have more meaningful conversation. Being able to share opinions and ideas without everyone automatically agreeing with us, is how we learn to argue better points and understand perspectives. Nobody’s way of seeing things is the only way. Learning to say no means divorcing the idea that it will lead to some kind of negative outcome.

Setting boundaries

Saying no allows coworkers, friends, managers, family members to understand boundaries. Yes I am available to work, to listen to your stories, to rub your back while you cry, to talk about old movies…but maybe on my own time. Now, I know there will be times that you have to put someone else’s preferences above your own – might be awkward if your partner comes home after a hard day and you just walk away. There will be times when you might not be ready for taking on a task or listening to a bad day but you’ll make yourself available because it’s the right thing to do for the team, for your partner. This should not be all the time though. You can always respectfully outline that you are unable to take on certain tasks right now.

For example: I get very emotional about certain things in my relationship, even though we’ve been together a million years. So, I prefer to let my husband know that I will respond to his comment or request later on. There’s no script that says you need to respond to a request right away. This is half the reason we feel guilted into saying yes – because we feel like a positive response id the only thing we can say in this moment (especially if this person trusted you enough to ask you). But, it is also completely okay to say that you need a moment to decide.

Here’s how you can ease into saying no

Let’s say your boss came by and asked if you could help with some data entry. Before dropping everything you’re doing to go help enter data, you can just say let me take a look at the rest of the tasks I have to do today and get back to you, or let me see what I can move around. You can even put it back on them to say – “let me know which of these tasks might not be as urgent so I can free up some time in my day for data entry”. If you are a manager or business owner always take a human-centered approach when asking your team to shift to other tasks or to add other tasks to their workday. The simplest way to ask this is “do you have the capacity to take this on right now”?


A simple question that shows that you have taken into consideration their whole being, not just their current to-do list. You have taken into account their willingness, mental capacity, and overall comfort levels with the task.

Our ears are tuned to hear yes. We see this almost every time we say no to someone. It’s like “whoa wait, did they just say that”. The word no is not our enemy.

No is a word for the empowered. Embrace it; Use it; and don’t apologize for it. This whole idea that you have to say yes to everything is problematic; concerning; and downright harmful, especially for children (and especially with adults). Thoughts of abuse come to mind – the idea that you need to be compliant in every situation to avoid friction and harm; but now we see that this simple ideology, may not be that simple. 

It’s not “just say no”, it’s knowing that yes isn’t your only option.

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