How To Say No To Others: Your Ultimate Guide

Saying No

Do you have difficulty saying no to other people? Do you know how to say no to others?

I’ll admit it – I don’t like to say no. Whenever someone has a request, I’ll say yes where I can help it. Part of this is because I don’t like to leave people in the lurch. The other part comes from not wanting to disappoint others. And yet another part of me feels that saying no would possibly mean burning bridges with others, and I don’t want to jeopardize my relationship with them.

Hence, I say yes whenever I can, and say no as less often as possible.

Realities of NOT Saying No

While saying yes seems like an easy answer for the reasons above, it’s not necessary the best answer all the time.

Just like saying no has its implications, NOT saying no has implications too. Every time we say yes to something, we’re actually saying no to something else. Think about it:

  • When you say yes to something you don’t enjoy, you’re saying no to things that you love
  • When you say yes to a job you don’t love, you’re saying no to your dreams
  • When you say yes to someone you don’t like, you’re saying no to a fulfilling relationship
  • When you say yes to working overtime, you say no to your social life
  • When you say yes to Quadrant 3/4 tasks, you say no to your Quadrant 2, high value activities

I’m blessed to be working in a career of my dreams today. I get to run this blog and reach out to all of you every day. I’m in the position where I can positively influence others with my words and writing. I’ve been able to turn my passion into a full-fledged career that supports my financial needs. I’m lucky enough to be married with my soulmate. And I have few, but very good friends whom I can share my true self with.

Yet, I wasn’t in this place right from the start. Reaching here required me to say many ‘no’s:

  • I said no to my previous career and my ex-company. I loved the job, I loved the people, I loved the environment, and I loved the company. The money was great; the prospects were great too. But I love my passion more. I love helping others to grow. I love pursuing my purpose in life. So I said no to it in 2008. I quit my full-time job and started to pursue my passion from ground zero, starting with this blog. I share more about this here: The Day I Quit My Job to Pursue My Passion
  • I said no to many unimportant activities. If something doesn’t have a purpose to it, and seems like a waste of time, I don’t participate in it. I value my time a lot and I only want to spend it on things I love. That’s what it means to live life to the fullest, via maximizing every moment we have, doing things we love, and things which are important to us.
  • I said no many business opportunities, some of which were very lucrative. Why do I say no then? Because they are not in alignment with my personal vision for my life’s work. If it’s not going to lead me to my end goal, I’d rather invest my energy and time into a place that does. Otherwise, it’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time and resources. Not only that, I’m also not being responsible to the other party in question, because it’s a venture together.
  • I said no to potential clients. While this doesn’t happen all the time, I get potential clients who are not good fits with my coaching. It happens when they see the coaching as a magical solution to all of life’s problems without having to do anything, when they are not willing to put in the due work to achieve their goals, and so on. I want all my clients to get every cent of their money’s worth from the coaching, so in such cases I rather not take them on because I don’t think they’ll be able to get any meaningful outcome. While it means losing out on revenue for the month, I’d rather earn the money from helping people I know will definitely reap the rewards.
  • I said no to many monetization opportunities. While many blogs tend to milk the money’s worth out of their email lists, this is not really my top priority. I’ve been on email lists where the bloggers keep blasting sales messages on a near weekly basis, and it irks me. I protect my readers and my email list (those on my newsletter) with my life, and I’ll only send out messages that I deem of highest relevance. This means I only write and post the absolute best content here, promoting products and services that I endorse 110% (actually to date, I’ve never done any product or service review out of the hundreds of product/service review requests I get) and creating the best quality products for you.

There are many other things I have said no to in my life and that I continue to say no to on a regular basis. If I haven’t said no to all the things above, I’ll never have been able to have time to write these hundreds of articles, coach my 1-1 clients, run my workshops, develop my business, reach out to ten thousands of people around the world, create a top quality blog, have time with my family and friends, cultivate high quality, meaningful and fulfilling relationships, and live the life I love today.

The path of realizing your truest dreams requires you to say a lot of ‘no’s. No’s to Quadrant 3/4 tasks, no’s to unfulfilling jobs, no’s to work you don’t believe in, no’s to outrageous requests, no’s to negative and unhappy people, no’s to draining activities, no’s to meaningless tasks, no’s to many many things.

Look at how you’ve been living your life in the past week and think about what  you’ve been saying yes to. Have you been saying yes to an unfulfilling job? Yes to unfulfilling relationships? Yes to people who don’t respect your time? Yes to people who don’t appreciate you? Yes to work you don’t enjoy? Yes to activities you dislike? Yes to people who don’t appreciate you? Because if you have, what you’re really doing is saying no to your ideal life. Is that what you want? Are you being fair to yourself?

Respecting Yourself

You know, to me saying no ultimately boils down to respecting yourself.

Do you respect yourself? Do you respect your time? Because if you respect yourself, you’ll also respect your time. You’ll be very conscious of how you spend it. You’ll say no to things which aren’t a good match for your interests, because you know you deserve more than that. You’ll say no to things that you don’t enjoy, because you rather spend your time doing things  you love. You’ll say no to people who don’t appreciate what you do, because they are just not worth it. You’ll say no to people who take you for granted, because it’s a waste of your time.

Many people say yes to things they don’t like because deep down, they don’t value themselves in the same way. They see others as more important. They see themselves as less important, that their time is dispensable, that they are not valuable. They keep putting themselves out there, sacrificing themselves for others. For the same reason, they don’t value their dreams. They look at their dreams and think “This is just a dream. It’s not worth going for. It’s never going to come true”. Then they just put them aside, and do things they don’t enjoy, day in and out.

If you don’t even respect your goals and dreams, then who is going respect them? If you don’t even think they are important, who is going to think they are? If you don’t say no to things you don’t believe in, then who is going to say no for you? If you don’t say yes to your goals and dreams, then who will help you say yes to them? When are you going to learn how to say no for real, so you can finally say yes to your dreams, and most importantly, to yourself?

How To Say No: 11 Steps To Say No To Others

It’s an ongoing process to learn how to say no, and it can be easy to tough to get started. But as long as you realize the importance of saying no, you’re on your way there.

For the remainder of this article, I’ll share 11 steps on how to say no. Whether you’re saying no to your boss, a friend, a colleague, a family member or a stranger, you’ll find the steps helpful. Remember there’s nothing wrong with saying no – it’s about learning how to do so. And hopefully with this guide, you’ll now know how to say no to others in the future.

1. Be clear of your vision

A lot of times we don’t say no because we don’t have a good enough reason to do so, other than a nagging feeling that we don’t want to do that. The nagging feeling is a start. It’s a clue that there is something else we’d rather do, a different scenario we’d rather be in. Probe further then. Think about your ideal vision, your dream outcome. What is your long-term vision for yourself, independent of the current situation? If you have your way, how would you want things to be? This is what you truly want.

Many people thought it was a big loss to quit my up-and-going career in a Fortune 100 company back in 2008. But it wasn’t a loss to me at all. To me the real loss would be if I had continued on staying in a job which was not going to lead me to my dreams. I was very clear of my end vision, which was to help others grow and live their best lives, through different mediums such as my blog, training, coaching and others. I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, ever.

To continue in my job would prevent my dreams from coming to live. To stay on for another 1, 3, 5 years would only put me in the same position with respect to pursuing my passion 1, 3, 5 years later – at ground zero. I didn’t want this. My purpose and passion was the most important thing to me in my life, and there was nothing I would rather do in my life than that. To spend my time doing something which wasn’t that – there was really no point. This was why it was so easy for me to make the decision, because I knew what was at stake if I continued to say yes to my current job.

Once you know what your vision is, it’ll be extremely easy to say no, because now you have a clear reason to do so. The clearer you are, the easier it will be to say no, because now you will know exactly what you want to say yes to.

2. Know the implications of saying yes

We normally say yes to the little requests streaming in because it may seem like a small deal. Just chip in and help if we can – what’s the problem? It doesn’t take much time, maybe just 10-15 minutes, or 20 minutes max. Right?

Yet, these little moments pile up over time to become big clogs. There’s a reason why top executives, despite managing large companies and businesses, can have time for themselves, their families, friends and work all the time, while some people who are always busy day-in and day-out never seem to progress in their life situations. It’s as if the latter group is busy running to stay in the same spot. That’s because the former knows the implications of not saying no.

You can keep saying yes to errands, requests, and calls for help, but you’ll never be able to live the life you want. With every small request taking up 15 minutes, a few of such requests a day will easily suck up hours. Think in terms of months and years, and think of all the years you’re letting slip through your hands. Is that how you want your life to be summarized as – the NPC rather than the hero out there living the life he/she wants?

Whenever you get a request, think twice before  you say yes or no. What’s going to happen if you say yes to it? What are the long-term implications? What is there to gain? What are you going to lose if you agree? Do you really have to say yes? What limiting beliefs do you have that are making you say yes?

I believe that time is more precious than money, because while you can earn back money, you can never get back time. Once you lose your time, you lose it forever. The moment can’t be recaptured. Because of that, I really value my time – it’s my most precious commodity and I’m very conscious of how I spend it. I only engage in activities that have the most relevance to my needs, and in everything I do and take part in, I’ll give it my all. That’s what it means to live my life to the fullest – to maximize every moment that I’m in.

3. Realize that saying no is okay

Saying no is okay. We keep thinking that it’s not okay, that the other person will feel bad, that we’re being evil, that people will be angry, that we’re being rude, etc. While these stem from good intentions in us, the thing is most of these fears are self-created. If the person is open-minded, he/she will understand when you say no.

And if the person doesn’t understand and gets unhappy, I’m not sure if saying yes is a solution to begin with. After all, you can say yes once, but you can’t possibly say yes for the rest of your life just to appease one person. And how many people do you need to keep saying yes to before you finally have to say no? In such a scenario, there’s even more reason to say no so you can let the other party know exactly where you stand once and for all, vs. leading him/her on by saying yes.

There have been past situations where I was worried about saying no, because I was afraid the person would be disappointed, or that he/she would be unhappy, and bridges would be burned. And while it took me time to convey the message, nothing bad happened from saying no. Sure I felt bad in that instant where I said it, and sure the person must have felt disappointed, but it was never as bad as I thought it would be. Many times we continue to be on good terms, if not better, because now the relationship had become stronger from the experience. I also know I can be honest with this person in saying no next time too. And to think that I was worried earlier for so many things which didn’t even come to fruition!

Saying no is okay and it’s part and parcel of life. People say yes and no all the time every day in this world. You’re definitely not the only person saying no to someone else. So don’t worry about it. Being respectful in your communication is more important (see #6).

4. Use the medium you’re most comfortable with

Use the appropriate medium to communicate the message – face-to-face, instant messaging, emailing, SMS, phone call or even others. I don’t think there’s a one best medium because I’ve used different mediums before and it depends on the context and your relationship with the person. Email is great because you can write out the message, then send and not have to worry about it, until you get the reply. Face-to-face has a personal touch to it – you can get the person’s reaction instantly, address any questions and close the issue on the spot. Instant messaging lets you see answers in real time while giving you the chance to craft your messages before sending them out.

Use whatever is best for you. It should be the medium you’re most comfortable with.

5. Keep it simple

Keep it simple – let the person know that you can’t do it, and give a short explanation why you’re saying no. Sometimes a simple “No it’s okay”, “I’m sorry it doesn’t meet my needs at the moment”, “I have other priorities and I can’t work on this at the moment” or “Perhaps next time” work just fine. There’s no need to over-explain as it’s not relevant for the party anyway, and it might lead to the other party trying to challenge your stance instead when all you want to do is to communicate a message of “No, thank you”. If there are certain things which you’re open to discuss/negotiate on, put them up for discussion here.

6. Be respectful

Many don’t say no because they feel it’s disrespectful, however it’s about how you say it rather than the act of saying no. Be respectful in your reply, value the other party’s stance and you’ll be fine.

7. Provide an alternative if you want

This is not necessary – If you like, propose an alternative.

If you don’t think you’re the right person for the request, then propose someone whom you think is a better fit. If you’re not free to be engaged at the moment but you’d like to be involved, then propose an alternate timing where you are free. If there’s something you think is an issue, then point it out so you can help him/her improve. Do it if you can and if you want to, but don’t take it upon yourself to do this.

I usually do this as an act of good will, but if I can’t think of any alternatives then I don’t. Don’t take responsibility for the person’s request because then you’re just trying to overcompensate for not being able to say yes. Saying no is not a problem nor an issue (see #3).

8. Make yourself less accessible

One situation I face from running the blog is the volume of emails and requests. Most of the messages are people seeking for help and advice. And while I’d love to address as many of them as possible, it has become a problem when there are more requests than can be humanly addressed. On an average day I’ll have requests coming in from many different places, from Facebook, Twitter, Email, during/after workshops, as well as calls/smses from friends/coachees seeking advice.

I consider this a luxury problem, because it is an honor that people trust me to open their hearts, tell me their problems and ask me for advice, over the other people in their life. At the same time it’s impossible for me to help everyone. When the emails start becoming long outpours of personal life stories, deep issues and cries for help, when phone calls become extended into 2-3 hour pep talk sessions, and when people in question become reliant on me for solutions and answers, it’s apparent that there has to be an intervention, or I can’t help other people out there who need my help too. I’ll never have the time to update PE; I’ll never have time to write high value articles; I’ll never have the time to write 30DLBL and more books, conduct workshops, develop my business, earn money for my livelihood, support my family, help others, or even have a life.

My solution for this is to limit the channels to reach me. On Twitter I only follow a small group of people (and even then I regularly follow/unfollow different people), so I don’t get DMs there. I have switched to using a Facebook Page rather than a Facebook personal account, so that there’s no inbox to check. The channel I direct all enquiries to is the contact page on PE, which has a simple list of instructions on what to do, depending on the nature of your request. For the most part, I don’t handle personal emails anymore, which has cut out a large chunk of my emails from the past.

Where people would like to have 1-1, full-on attention and coaching, they are invited to sign up for the 1-1 coaching sessions, where they can get started in about 1-2 weeks time. My 1-1 clients get the highest priority, since they are paying for the service and they’ve shown real commitment to invest in it. In my workshops, I help everyone on a group level, after which I redirect them to my 1-1 coaching and my blog if they want detailed attention and help.

All these measures have helped to reduce incoming requests considerably. There is still a lot of streamlining I can do for my communication channels today because I still get a lot of stray requests here and there, and I’ll continue to experiment moving forward.

I think if you face the situation where too many people keep asking you for help and it’s just overwhelming you, make yourself less accessible. Don’t respond immediately to every single request, because it just sends the message that you’re always around all the time for help, which may not be true. Instead take a longer time to revert (as your schedule permits), be more concise with your replies, and limit your availability. This way, others will value your time more.

9. Write everything down first

This is very helpful for me when I’m at a block on how to say no, usually when it’s a request I feel ambiguous about. Write out everything that’s on your mind, which includes what you really want to say to the person. While you’re doing this, sometimes you may uncover pent up frustrations. That’s good. Keep writing. While you may start out confused on how to say no, the answer will start formulating itself mid-way through your message. Continue typing and it’ll soon be clear on what you actually want, and how to say it. Once you’re done, now review what you wrote and edit it to fit your final message.

10. Delay your response

If you’re not keen on the request, delaying your reply is a way of showing lack of interest. I usually archive my “no” mail, think over them for a couple of weeks and reply them after that. By then the other party would know that I’m not very keen, and they would not be so persistent in their responses as well.

11. Sometimes, no reply is also a form of reply

In 11 Tips To Effective Email Management, I mentioned not replying emails in itself is a form of answer. It’s true. Running PE, I often get pitches from other businesses or bloggers to review products, services, events, among other things. If I try to reply to every single one of them I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. So most of the times I reply only to those that are relevant to me. As for the rest, I don’t respond, which in itself is a reply.

If a particular request isn’t important to you and you’re stretched for time, don’t worry too much about it. Life goes on for everyone. But if the person took some time to write a personal, customized message, it’ll be nice to just send a short note to say no so you don’t leave the person hanging. If you have already said no and the person still persists, then not replying is the way to go.

Bookmark this guide

Remember, saying no is important and it’s okay. Rather than shying away from saying no, it’s about learning how to do so. This is meant as a one-stop guide to saying no, so bookmark it so you can keep referring in the future. Please also share this resource via Twitter and Facebook (sharing links below) if you have found it useful.

This article is also available in manifesto and web lecture formats.

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Update: Be sure to check out the follow-up sister article, How To Say “No” To a High-Pressure Sales Person (Or Anyone For That Matter), which provides a real-life application of Step #3 of this guide. 🙂

Image: Saying no