How To Practise The Art Of Saying No

How To Practise The Art Of Saying No

How many times have you said yes, only to wish you’d said no? Whether it’s helping out on an internal project you don’t have the capacity for or seeing someone you know you’re drifting apart from, our natural instinct to please often gets in the way. You’ll have heard, time and again, life experts talk about the power of saying no, but here accredited coach and licensed neurolinguistic practitioner Emma Jefferys explains exactly how to do it…

No is such a tiny word. But one that so many people struggle to say. Even though it’s just two letters, it is the ultimate power word, as it’s the only one we have that exerts a complete sense of self. It protects, preserves and allows us to control our most precious resources. Once mastered, it can set you free in so many different ways. Starting with the idea that saying yes to someone else is saying no to yourself makes it’s easy to see how this small word holds more power than its size suggests.
As children we’re great at saying no. ‘No’ to putting shoes on, eating peas or brushing our teeth. But then you’re soon told off, deemed rude and perhaps even punished by your parents. From a very young age we are taught that no is a bad word – that saying it is impolite and inappropriate. As such, we form a belief that saying it makes us bad mannered, dislikeable, selfish and even unkind.
Beliefs are just stories, not facts or truth. But holding onto them for 30 years or more usually means they become automatic. Imagine if someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do – before you’ve even had the chance to consciously think about it, your brain has told to agree to it to avoid upsetting that person or being disliked. Despite this, responding with a hesitant yes can leave you with a sinking feeling in your stomach. 
It is possible to work on your belief system, so the outcome is better for you. In the space between someone asking you something and you responding lies the space to choose the right answer for you. This exercise can shift the childhood belief to an adult one: take a piece of paper and write down your instant response to the following statements: 

  • Someone who says ‘yes’ is….
  • Someone who says ‘no’ is….
  • Someone who doesn’t say ‘no’ is….
  • Someone who doesn’t say ‘yes’ is……

What do you notice? The reality is, it doesn’t matter if you say yes or no so long as it is the answer you actually want to give – that it’s on your terms and said intentionally.

Even though it’s just two letters, it is the ultimate power word.

Learning to say no is essentially the same as boundary setting. By doing so, we recognise we all have limited resources – time, money, energy, motivation – and we need to be intentional about how and where we use them. Being clear about your boundaries or your goals will inform how much you need to do the things you want for yourself and perhaps your loved ones, and how much you can spend on everyone else. When we give our resources away mindlessly, it often compromises things that really matter to us. 
No is the right answer when we are stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted or ill. Without our physical and mental health, we are no good to anyone. Our aim should always be to avoid feeling ‘broken’ at all costs. There are plenty of situations when this might apply: 

  • When it is someone else’s issue 
  • When we feel taken for granted 
  • When it is something you just don’t want to do 
  • When there is something else you’d much rather do 
  • When it clashes with your values and beliefs 

It is possible for the word ‘no’ to land softly. Keep it short and sweet, and always be polite to soften the response and make it appropriate. Phrases such as “I’m so sorry I can’t” or “Any other time I would love to” show this is a ‘situational’ no, and not a hostile one.
Try using empathy to understand how your ‘no’ might be taken. This way, you can work out what you to do to mitigate the impact. If someone was excited to have you at an event, for example, perhaps you could offer to catch up another time, one to one. Or if it was a favour being asked, perhaps you can anticipate their disappointment by saying “I’m so sorry, I know this isn’t what you’ll want to hear, and I’d love to help, but I’m afraid I can’t on this occasion”. 
The ‘yes trap’ means different things to different people. What’s important is to focus on understanding why we say yes when we really mean no. There is a theory in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) that every single behaviour has a positive intent, so even by doing something you don’t think you want to do, you’re actually doing it on purpose (in NLP it’s called a ‘secondary gain’). For example, if you want to give up smoking because you know it’s bad for you, the secondary gain is that you find it relaxing. Or if you want to leave a job you hate, the secondary gain is that you’re comfortable and don’t have to do something that scares you. To avoid falling into the ‘yes trap’, we need to understand how we benefit by saying ‘yes’. Then we have to get clear on what matters to us. Once you know this you can decide which is more important – this or the secondary gain? 
No is a complete sentence. You do not have to give any explanation and certainly don’t have to apologise unless you want to. Just be polite and don’t lie. Lying will most likely lead to guilt and we’re aiming to disassociate guilt from the word no. Remember that it is better to say no now than be resentful later.

Learning to say ‘no’ more often releases you from the burden of pleasing others.

Saying no takes practice. Imagine a scenario and then practice saying no either by yourself or with a friend. This will get you feeling a lot more comfortable with it. Remember your self-worth does not depend on how much you do for other people. When ‘no’ is the right answer for you, say it assertively and with conviction. If it leaves you feeling strong in yourself, then you've made the right decision.
Learning to say ‘no’ more often, or just learning to say ‘yes’ on your own terms, releases you from the burden of pleasing others. Give yourself the time and freedom to be, and do, what matters to you. You will feel more confident, in control and balanced and you’ll also be surprised at what you don’t lose. So many people fear they’ll lose friendships, promotions, or their reputation as a lovely person but the opposite tends to be true. You can gain respect and appreciation from others by respecting and appreciating yourself.
Ultimately, it’s always about choice. The important thing is that you decide with your head and your heart to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We’ll all be in positions when we have to consider saying no, so weigh up the importance of the ask and decide whether it means sacrificing something or digging a little deeper. The outcome is usually irrelevant – it’s saying yes, when you really want to say no, that is the most damaging. 
Emma Jefferys is an accredited coach and licensed NLP practitioner running transformative programmes. She has also delivered talks entitled ‘The Power Of No’ in conjunction with The Social Networking Club. 
Visit Emma’s website at

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