5 ways to say NO without feeling guilty

You know that you cannot manage – but you still say YES. Why is it so hard to say NO?
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Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, liked to ask his employees one question: “How many times have you managed to say NO today?” 

Why was he particularly interested in this word? And why did he use the expression “managed” in this context?

It’s because NO is one of the most important words to influence a person’s concentration and productivity, yet it is one of the hardest words to say.

Why didn’t I say NO?

Do you ever find yourself saying yes to tasks you know you cannot manage? Are you bothered by the notion that you make yourself tense, stressed and anxious, and that you are always fighting off depression due to YOUR FEELING OF GUILT? Do you blame yourself for not having time for the things you would like to say YES to due to the people and things you cannot say NO to?

As I write in my books, NO is one of the shortest and one of the most magical words. Just two letters that can change everything. They allow us to immediately gain more time – to do what we really want or need to do; to finish something we’ve been dreaming of. People who cannot say NO become like a gaming machine – they serve anyone who switches them on.

That’s why Steve Jobs asked about this word and it’s why he used it with the expression “managed”. Because saying NO is a skill.

Our choice

Whenever we are asked to do something we cannot or do not want to manage, we have three options:

  1. To say YES because we are uncomfortable with saying NO and end up feeling bad about saying YES 
  2. To say NO and feel bad about it
  3. To say NO and not feel bad about it.

What do you usually do? If you would like to experience option number 3 – in other words if you feel bad about refusing something to the point that you say YES even when you want to say NO – the following paragraphs are for you.

Why NO makes you feel bad

Three reasons:

  1. NO is a negative word. People who are too kind and good-natured feel bad about using this word. They may feel that they will disappoint others by saying NO, or cause them trouble, and that makes them feel guilty.
  2. NO is resolute, curt, even to the point of being aggressive. It is too harsh when someone is asking for help.
  3. Rejection causes people to worry that they may not be popular anymore or that they will be punished. They do not want to look bad, heartless, or even arrogant. That is why they choose the path of least resistance. They would rather compromise themselves and their priorities than be condemned by others.

I could add another reason. People are afraid of their own NO because they do not know how to say NO. They utter their NO is such a complicated way that they cause more damage than good with their half-NO. A typical example is: “You see, I would like to help but I am very busy at the moment…” The other person responds: “Never mind, that’s OK. So how about in an hour or two?” 

When we express our NO poorly, we leave the situation open for further discussion with the other person. It is not their faultwhen they keep pressing: “What time this week? Or when can we do it next week?”

Readers of my articles often confide in me that they realise they have a problem with expressing their NO. So, let’s learn. After all, it is a skill that can be mastered. Here are 5 basic ways of saying NO without feeling bad.

1. Just say it


That’s it. Not rocket science, is it? Try it…

“No.” Simple but strong. Don’t beat around the bush or get lost in weak excuses. When we do this, we are not saying NO anymore.

Do not put it off or hesitate. Do not open space for discussion. Simply say NO.

Alternatively, if we feel strongly that it’s necessary, we may add a brief explanation of why.

Explanation is mostly not required, however. NO is complete information and it is sufficient. The less we say, the better we will say it.

2. Be politely assertive

Is a simple NO too harsh for you? In this case use a softer version that is suitable for certain cases. For example: “I am sorry. I cannot do this right now, but I will let you know when and if I am able to.”

That’s it.

With this politer type of assertive response, you can change your opinion later. In addition, there is no reason to feel bad. You simply do not have the time now..

This is a very popular option.

3. Return with a question

A return is an effective strike for returning the other player’s serve in tennis. This case is the ideal option when we are the subordinate person, typically at work.

For example, when our superior wants us to complete more tasks than we are objectively able to during the time available it is good to return the serve as follows: “Dear boss, I will gladly oblige you and complete tasks A, B and C. However, to do this properly, I need more time (2 days). If you insist on the shorter time (1 day), which of the tasks A, B or C should I address as a priority?”

In other words: Dear boss, do you want quality or quantity?

4. Test the relationship

Saying NO tends to be unpleasant in relationships when we have not had enough time to read the other person (to guess their probable reaction), to assess our relationship (is it meaningful for us?), and to understand our role in the relationship (will we be the more dominant or submissive one?).

This is when we are afraid of regretting our NO later. We are afraid of the consequences of the rejection. This is especially the case in relationships that are only just starting out and we are not certain if they are strong enough to withstand even one NO. This is precisely the reason why this NO needs to be uttered.

Crafty people (manipulators) may test our willingness to say NO from the start. As we are afraid of saying NO, they move their boundaries to the point of abusing us. NO is a test for both sides:

  • The person saying it is showing that they value their time and priorities.
  • The person accepting another person’s NO is showing their respect for their partner and their values.

We should not change our attitude simply because the other person will not accept our NO. In this circumstance, we need to stay strong and avoid becoming soft just because the other person is increasingly unpleasant. We should ask ourselves whether someone who does not respect our NO is even worthy of our YES.

5. Understand NO as an investment in ourselves

Do you want to buy time? Say NO to the others.

Do you want to build your priorities? Say NO to the others.

Do you want to meet your needs? Say NO to the others.

Some people call this selfishness and prefer other people’s time, priorities and needs over their own as soon as someone puts pressure on them. This person is a blessing for others because they say NO to this person’s time, priorities and needs.

Whenever we give preference to other people during our productive time, our productivity declines. We may feel good about having helped someone but who will help us? The person we have helped? Really?

NO is an investment in our own needs, values and time. In our own life.

© Petr Casanova