How to Say No To Others: Your Ultimate Guide


by Celes
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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 if 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 like saying no would mean possibly burning bridges, and I don’t want to jeopardize my relationship with others.

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

Realities of Saying Yes

While saying yes seems like an easy answer in many instances, it’s not necessarily the best answer all the time.

Just like saying no has its implications (awkwardness, hurt feelings, and so on), saying yes has its implications too. Every time you say yes to something, you are actually saying no to something else. Think about it:

  • When you say yes to something you don’t enjoy, you are saying no to the things you love
  • When you say yes to a job you hate/dislike, you are saying no to your dreams
  • When you say yes to someone you don’t like, you are saying no to a fulfilling relationship
  • When you say yes to working overtime, you are saying no to your relationships / social life
  • When you say yes to Quadrant 3/4 tasks, you are saying no to your Quadrant 2 goals

While I’m in a career of my dreams and I’m lucky to be able to write and share my true self with you through my blog today, Yet, I wasn’t in this place in the past. Reaching here required me to say ‘no’ to many things:

  • 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, which is my life purpose. So I said no to my previous job in 2008.  I quit my full-time job and started to pursue my passion, starting with this blog. Read: The Day I Quit My Job to Pursue My Passion
  • I said no to many unimportant activities. If something doesn’t have a real purpose behind it or seems like a waste of time, I say “no.” That’s because when I waste time on the unimportant stuff, I leave myself with no time for the real important things.
  • I said no many business opportunities, some of which were very lucrative. Why? Because they were not in alignment with my vision for my life’s work. If it’s not going to lead me to my end goal, I rather invest my time and energy in something that does. Otherwise, it’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time as I go in half-hearted, which isn’t fair for the other party too.
  • I said no to potential clients. While this doesn’t happen all the time, I get potential clients and course participants who are not a good fit with my material or coaching. As I want all my students to get their full money’s worth from my products/services, in such cases I rather not take them on if I don’t think they’d be able to reap the full rewards. While it means losing out on extra revenue, that’s okay as my students’ time, money, and their trust in me are more important.
  • I said no to many monetization opportunities. While many bloggers tend to milk as much money as they can out of their email lists, this is not my top priority. I’ve been on email lists where the bloggers blast sales messages on a near weekly basis, and it irks me. I hold my readers and my email list with high importance and I’ll only send out messages that I deem of highest relevance. This means only posting the absolute best content, promoting products and services that I endorse 110% (to date, I’ve never done any review out of the thousands of pitches I received) and creating the best quality products for you. I believe that this has helped me built the highest trust with you, my readers.
  • I also said no to relationships that were not working out. Sometimes there are connections that simply don’t work out because of incompatible values. Holding on to these connections then become a draining affair as there are heavy compromises on both ends, sometimes even resulting in deep conflicts and resentment. While I tried to hold on some bad connections in the past, I eventually realized that parting is sometimes the necessary way forward to liberate yourself and help others too. Read more: Why I Parted Ways With My Best Friend of 10 Years

Because I said no to all these things above, it has allowed me to relentlessly pursue my passion, do the highest value work that makes a difference, and meet all of you. Even though the link between saying no and saying yes to your dreams isn’t very clear at the point where you say no, whenever you say no to something that doesn’t resonate to you and doesn’t move you closer to your dreams, you are in reality creating space for the things that you want, the things that matter to you.

11 Steps to Say No to Others

So how do you say no? In this article, I share 11 steps that I use to say no.

1. Be clear of your vision

Many times saying no feels uncomfortable, even painful. To avoid this pain, we then say “yes,” which gives us an immediate relief as the pressing conflict is resolved and we can continue with the motions.

The problem with this is that it’s a decision making method based on removing short-term pain. Don’t want to let down a nice friend, even though he’s pitching a business idea with no bearing on your work? Let’s just say “yes.” Don’t want to disappoint this nice person who is just asking for a few hours of your time? Let’s just say “yes” too — and while you’re doing so, to say “yes” to 10 other requests of the same nature.

Yet, every yes has its implications like I outlined in the beginning. When you say yes on a whim, you are saying no to something else. When you say yes to avoid short-term pain, you create long-term pain in another area.

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The best way to resolve this conflict is to think about your long-term vision. What is your long-term vision for yourself, independent of the constraints of this decision? If you can have your way, how would you want things to be? This is what you really want. Not the pending yes (or no) that the situation seems to be boxing you into.

I share about the importance of this decision making method in How to Make Life’s Hardest Decisions: 3 Decision Making Methods to Solve Dilemmas (method #1). Back when I was in my corporate job, a “comfortable” decision would be to continue working there, since I was earning good money and it was a good job. But when I thought about my long-term vision, I realized that none of these had bearings in my future. Even if I were to make a lot more money, even if I were to climb up the corporate ladder, it would bring me no closer to my life purpose and life goal which is to make the world a more conscious place. I realized what I needed to do was to say a big “no” to my job so that I could say a “yes” to my purpose. I share this story in The Day I Quit My Job to Pursue My Passion.

I find that whenever I hesitate from saying no even when I don’t feel good about the decision, it’s because I lack a clear picture of my vision. Here are 2 questions to you:

  1. What is your long-term vision for yourself, independent of the constraints of this current situation? If you can have your way, how would you want things to be?
  2. The decision that you need to make: what relevance does it have in your vision? What happens if you say yes? What happens if you say no? What is the answer that will move you closer to your end vision: is it a yes or no?

Of course it doesn’t mean you say no to every single thing that doesn’t forward you in your goals. I sometimes engage in side pursuits if I see value in it or if I simply want to do good outside of my current channels. But the point is that being clear of your vision helps you get clear of your priorities, which subsequently makes it easier for you to say no to the things that don’t fit.

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.

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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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Image: Saying no

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