“I want to learn how to say No so it doesn’t turn into an argument,” David said. He’d been married about two years, and came to my office asking if I could help him learn to talk with his wife “without getting so upset when we disagree.”
“I’m fine doing things her way most of the time,” he said, “but sometimes I feel pretty strongly about what I want. This time it’s about a dog – she wants one and I don’t.”
David explained that he felt good when he said yes to the things his wife wanted, because no matter what they ended up doing, they would be together and having fun. And if it was something difficult for him…well, David liked a challenge.
But even in the best of relationships, there has to be room for a No. Sometimes you don’t have the energy, or you don’t want the responsibility, or you have another idea that’s feels more important.
Learning how to say No, however, is tricky. The people you’re talking with – your spouse, your friend, your mother – might end up feeling angry, or disappointed, or hurt. Saying No can create conflict, like it did for David. (Nos in a parenting context are somewhat different, and the subject of another article.)
Saying No is about making room for things that matter. Saying Yes to one thing almost always means saying No to another. Saying Yes to your health might mean saying No to working all weekend. Saying Yes to your partner about a weekend away might mean saying No to your parents for dinner Saturday night.
- However respectfully and compassionately you present your No, some people will argue, and others will hint that you’re being selfish. Sometimes the gentlest No can be perceived as harsh, even when you don’t mean it that way.
- My client Amelia, for example, struggled with how to say No to a friend who frequently asked her for help. “The things she asks me for are so easy,” Amelia said. “It feels unreasonable to say no. But her requests take up a lot of my time, and then I don’t always finish the things I need to do.” Amelia avoided saying No because it was hard to risk the hurt feelings.
- Evan and his partner wondered how to say No to Evan’s mother. Her intentions were good – she wanted to spend time with Evan’s own children. However, her visits were unpredictable, and when she visited she liked to run the show. For Evan, saying No brought on a feeling of guilt.
The thing is, saying Yes to everything doesn’t leave time for what’s really important. If you want to make time to do the things you love and to enjoy the people you care about, you’ll have to get comfortable with No. No is as much a part of a healthy relationship as a Yes.
In fact, No is what makes room for Yes. How can you say Yes to dessert when you’ve already eaten too much pasta? How can you stuff more in your closet of “to-dos” when the tasks you’ve already taken on are tumbling out onto the floor?
Why it’s hard to say No
Our brains are wired to be more sensitive to bad news. Neuroscientist John D. Cacioppo found that the brain increases it’s electrical output in response to negative information. It’s hard to face a lukewarm response to your presentation, a poor grade on a test, or an angry look from your partner. A No does have a bigger impact than a yes.
Marriage researcher John Gottman found that in successful relationships, the ratio of positive to negative responses needs to be at least five to one. It makes sense to be thoughtful about how often you say No, as well as how you say it.At the same time, No can be one if the most useful, honest, and freeing words we can speak.
How to say No so it makes room for Yes
A mentor of mine once told me a story about a farmer. The farmer was transporting some hens, but there were more hens than there was room in the truck. To solve the problem, he hired a boy to stand in the back of the truck and shoo the hens into the air. As each group of hens took flight, they cleared enough of the truck bed for flying chickens to land. The trouble was, the boy fainted from exhaustion and half the hens got away.
What the farmer really needed was a bigger truck…or enough time to make a couple of trips.
Knowing how to say No gives you space for your commitments and the time to do them well. You can’t do everything, and taking on too much can leave you feeling frustrated, unappreciated, or resentful. Creating room to take a walk with your wife or a feel a sense of ease during your workday takes a lot of No.
No also builds confidence. To say No effectively, you need to be clear about your own desires and limits, and know how to balance those with the people you care about.
The hardest part
The hardest part of learning how to say No is not so much finding the right words, but rather managing your own angst and staying calm. It’s not always easy to keep your own emotional balance while being sensitive to the wishes, needs, and fears of people you care about. It’s not always easy to balance integrity with compassion.
The first step is to get clear about what you really want. If you’re not sure, give yourself time to sort it out. You’ll need to understand your own wishes well to know whether or not there is room to compromise. If you’re not sure, postpone the conversation: “Let me think about that and get back to you tomorrow afternoon”.
If you decide to say No, it helps to wrap the No between some positive statements.
1. Acknowledge the wish.
- “I know you grew up with dogs, and you’ve probably been wanting a dog for a long time.”
- “You’ve put a lot of work into that dinner party you’re holding on Saturday.”
- “It’s really wonderful that you like spending so much time with our son. He looks forward to seeing you.”
2. Make a clear statement. Don’t hint (“I don’t think that will work for us…”) or ask (“Would it be okay if…” ) or try to use the Socratic method to get them to agree with you (“Considering how late it is, wouldn’t it be better if we…”). Instead, be direct:
- “…but I really don’t want to get a dog at this time.”
- “…but unfortunately I won’t be around that morning to help.”
- “…but dinnertime visits don’t work with our family schedule.”
3. Say something positive. If your willing to reconsider in the future, say so. If you can see an alternative, offer it.
- “I’d be happy to talk about it again in a year or two, when I’ve got tenure at my job.”
- “Would you like to spend a few minutes talking about where you might streamline a bit?”
- “The best time for a visit for our schedule is Saturday mornings. Does this Saturday work for you?”
You said ‘No’…now what?
Now let the person you’re talking with have their reaction. They might like your new solution, but they don’t have to. They might disagree, feel hurt, argue, or propose something else. Whatever their feeling, don’t get caught up in it. Just listen.
How to listen well is a topic for another article, but here are two suggestions to start:
Notice your own reaction to their reaction. You might feel happy, tense, indignant, or sad. You might start to interpret their response: “She’s so unreasonable!” “He doesn’t value my time at all.” “It’s always about her.” Notice these thoughts and feelings, then let them go.
Stay curious. You might wonder how you’re friend’s point of view makes sense to him, even when it doesn’t make sense to you.
A Compassionate ‘No’
Learning how to say No honestly and authentically takes practice. To say No to people you care about, you’ll often have to make room for difficult feelings. But like the farmer, you need enough space in your metaphorical truck for what’s really important.
The benefits are many. Like David, you’ll make it easier for your partner to trust your Yes. Like Amelia, preserve your own energy and well-being. Like Evan,you’ll feel more confident and have more energy. The biggest benefit, though, is that saying No makes room for a powerful, authentic, taste-of-dessert, Yes.