Just Say No — Here’s How and Why

2015-02-09 11.16.56

Do you have trouble saying no?

A client told me about a situation in which she couldn’t bring herself to say no. The details are unimportant. We’ve all been there. In the end, she told a “white lie” rather than admit she didn’t want to do a favor for a friend. (A favor which, by the way, in my opinion, was taking unfair advantage of my client.) She asked for my advice after the fact. Here it is:

If you don’t want to do it, just say no.

(Well… what did you think I would say? LOL!)

I know, easier said than done, but important nonetheless.

Learn to say no, and practice until you're comfortable saying it. Keep in mind that every yes is a no to something else. Click To Tweet

Here are some good ways to say no:

  1. “No.” It’s a complete sentence! This should suffice for people who know you well, and respect you, and probably already understand why you’re saying no. It’s also enough for complete strangers to whom you owe no explanation.
  2. “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that.” This is less cold (if you consider “No” to be cold), but don’t elaborate. Why not? Because the asker will just want to help you resolve whatever conflict you’ve offered up as an excuse. They’ll try to help you re-schedule, or re-prioritize, or guilt-trip you to the point where you feel you have no choice but to say yes to them. Don’t give them the chance!
  3. “Let me think about that and get back to you.” This is my personal favorite. It buys you time to think. If you are tempted to say yes — and maybe you will end up saying yes — there’s usually no reason why you have to say it on the spot. In a quiet moment, ask yourself: Is this something I want to do? Do I want to devote the time/energy/resources this will take? What else will need to be rescheduled? Who else will be affected? What other “costs” are involved? What benefits will there be? IMPORTANT: If you say you’ll get back to them, don’t forget to do it in a timely manner. If you end up saying yes it will be because you have decided you really want to. If you say no, they will understand that you have carefully considered it.
  4. “Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t do it.” This shows appreciation, and still gets you out of it. There are any number of reasons why you might want to say no in addition to simply not wanting to do it, or not having the required time, energy, or resources. Maybe you aren’t the best suited person for the job (and you will be a hero if you can suggest someone else). Or maybe it’s someone else’s responsibility (and doing it for them will only reinforce their irresponsibility or dependence). Again, no need to go into detail.

There are many other ways to say no. Some are nicer and more effective than others. You need to find a way that works for you, that you can remember to use, and that you feel good about using. It’s a skill like any other, so practice saying no!

Why is it so important to learn to say no?

Consider this quote by Dr. Phil McGraw (who has fallen from favor since this post was first written, but who nonetheless made some good points over the years):

We teach people how to treat us.

If you keep saying yes to things you don’t really want to do, people will think you DO want to do them, and they will keep asking you to do more. So don’t be so surprised when that keeps happening to you!

In Living and Working by Design, not by Default I wrote: “Learn how to say no. Say yes to activities and tasks that support your goals and priorities… Keep in mind that every yes is a no to something else.”

Every yes is a no to something else? Like what?

  • Time to work on a pet project of your own, or to exercise, or to be with your family.
  • Self-esteem and not feeling taken advantage of.
  • Having your life arranged the way you want it, not the way someone else wants it.

Stuff like that.

If saying no is still difficult, here are some more ideas for you:

  • How to say no to others (and why you shouldn’t feel guilty) — BetterUp article
  • This TikTok explains how adding just one more activity or task to your agenda increases the likelihood of affecting multiple other items on your list.
  • And here are eighty — count ’em, 80! — more ways to say no: How to Say “No” Politely – 80 Different Ways. Granted, this list is meant for people learning English. And 13 of them are in the “Less Polite” (but not IM-polite) category. So, think of it this way: If these are acceptable for them to use — I mean, no ESL teacher is going to set their students up for failure or embarrassment, are they? — they’re probably polite enough for you to use too.

But what if it’s something you’ve already been doing and want to stop doing?

Take me for example: I once volunteered to be the Secretary of my local Friends of the Library board. The term I signed up for was two years. I knew full well that there were board members who had had been on the board (in various positions) for many years. When my two years were nearly up I reminded them that I was nearly finished and planning to leave. They were so surprised! But I left anyway because I had other things I wanted to do with my time. I continued volunteering on a regular basis, just not on the board. They managed without me.

I have observed many friends and colleagues who feel stuck in positions that they are no longer interested in, but don’t seem to be able to quit. They hate to leave because they care about the group and feel that things will fall through the cracks if they do. Well, they might. But it’s not up to you to spend your life keeping it going. It’s up to you to extricate yourself gracefully by giving plenty of notice, sticking to your guns, and possibly (but not obligatorily) finding someone to replace you.

What do YOU need to say no to?

How do you plan to do it?

Please share with us in the comments!



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  1. lucy kelly on February 14, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Love these concrete suggestions on how to say yes by saying no. Great reminder that when we say no to something that means we’re saying yes to something else.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

      Thanks, Lucy!

  2. Janet Barclay on February 15, 2015 at 10:42 am

    People often make excuses (like your client did) but that can often backfire if the other person tries to work around whatever obstacle they’ve manufactured. Saying “no” is easier said than done but is usually worth it.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 15, 2015 at 11:41 am

      Agreed! It also takes energy to maintain a lie. (Uh oh, there’s so-and-so. What did I tell them was the reason I couldn’t do that thing?) I also think, though, that there can be degrees of forthcoming-ness that depend on how close the relationship is, and how important it is for you to maintain trust. That still doesn’t mean you can’t say no, though!

  3. Stacey@organizedartistry.com on February 15, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Two letters, one small word–so difficult to say! I find myself saying ‘No’ often lately. WIth two young children and a business my time is stretched to the limits. And when people find out you have organizing skills, they ask you to become involved in events, good causes, and whatever they need help with. I keep ‘Every Yes is a No to something else’ in the back of my head at all times…

  4. Jane M Severance on March 27, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    Here is one that has worked beautifully for me – I’m a little selfish about that. This first came up when on when someone I really did not like asked to come with me on a trip to visit a mutual friend. I knew she didn’t drive, I know it would be difficult for her to get a ride with someone else, and I knew she loved our friend. But this was someone who had been unpleasant to me for years. I felt determined but selfish and so that’s what I told her.

    “I’m a little selfish about this.” Then fill in the blank. You’ve already said you were selfish. What can they say?

    Of course, you must be generous and helpful whenever you can or you will be selfish

    • Hazel Thornton on April 1, 2020 at 5:51 pm

      I’m glad you found something that worked for you! I think it’s best suited for personal situations than for professional situations.

  5. Linda Samuels on September 11, 2023 at 12:36 pm

    Oh, Hazel! I love this and am so glad you brought it forward. This should be an elementary school primer. Because honestly, not everyone learns the skill of saying “no.”

    It took me into my young adulthood to understand that I could say no. In addition, it took me time to realize how saying “yes” was an issue when I didn’t consider how it would affect other commitments. Now, I know to pause before giving a knee-jerk response.

    Even though I’ve learned these lessons, along with handy replies (similar to the ones you articulated), there are times when it’s still hard for me to say no. However, I continue to practice the skill. The more I do it, the more comfortable it becomes.

    Thank you for reinforcing what took me way too long to learn.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 26, 2023 at 11:58 am

      Yes, it’s a skill like any other. Harder for some, easier for others. But also easier with practice.

  6. Julie Bestry on September 11, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    Good for you for being so good at saying “no.” I always think I’m good at it too, until suddenly I’m not. I’m good at saying “no” to things I don’t WANT to do, especially when there’s no up-side to it, but when it feels like it ought to be good (the vegetables of obligation, I call them), I am always tempted to try to make it make sense. I know how to say no, and I often try to suggest someone who will be a better fit, a sort of extension of your 4th tip. But now I’m coming into my “hell, yes” phase. If my reaction to doing something is anything other than “hell, yes!” I say no or give a response that’s 90% negative. My time needs to be spent on more things about which I have enthusiasm so I can give my best efforts.

    Thanks for the excellent reminders!

    • Hazel Thornton on September 26, 2023 at 11:57 am

      “The vegetables of obligation” — hah! How ’bout “the desserts of desire” LOL?

  7. Janet Schiesl on September 12, 2023 at 8:03 pm

    I love what you said: “If you keep saying yes to things you don’t really want to do, people will think you DO want to do them” it’s so true, you should never say YES to something you don’t feel comfortable doing or taking… Say NO if you believe it’s the right thing to do and don’t feel bad about it.
    Thanks for this blog.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 26, 2023 at 11:55 am

      Thanks for chiming in, Janet!

  8. Sabrina Quairoli on September 21, 2023 at 10:10 am

    I love the responses! My favorite one is “Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t do it.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Sometimes, we forget that it is OK to say “no” and need someone to remind us.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 26, 2023 at 11:56 am

      Right? I think we forget MOST good advice and we all need reminders from time to time.

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