How to Say 'No' Politely

Psychological strategies to take back control of your time

Reading Time: 10 Minutes

How to say ‘no’ politely is a prized skill. As technology grants 24-hour access to our lives and the ability to be quickly available is an accepted norm, the art of saying ‘no’ can be a superpower.

 

As Warren Buffet said: 

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

Many of us feel overwhelmed. Like a hamster in the wheel, we do our best to keep up. We shoehorn as much stuff as we can into our days. We go for quantity, not quality.

 

As social beings, we fear upsetting others. We’re scared of missing out. We like to be part of the crowd. We struggle with decision making. It’s easier to say ‘yes’.

 

And there’s the irony.

 

We all know what we’d like to say ‘no’ to. But we can’t go through with it.

 

Time is our most precious and finite resource. It does not regenerate, and it cannot be retrieved or reversed. Like water pouring down the sink as we clean our teeth, we have the power to control the way we use our time, but few of us exercise this right thoroughly.

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Why ‘no’ is essential for our happiness

When you can say ‘no’ without fear or guilt, you are free.

 

Saying ‘yes’ feels good in the moment. It avoids social tension. On the surface, it appears to save time as it’s a quick solution. We don’t have to wrestle internally with an unpleasant decision and how to enact it.

 

But you then have to follow through on your promise.

 

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill spoke of the value of individuality and how we should decide for ourselves where we find value in our lives and live accordingly. As we grow older and learn more about ourselves, we can continue to shape our decisions.

 

Saying ‘yes’ is a time commitment. It takes you away from the things you want to do, the pleasures that give your life meaning. It’s why lifelong people-pleasers feel unfulfilled.

 

Accepting every request is impractical. You fill your calendar with unimportant tasks that add no value to your life. Some of them might even be urgent (although not important) which adds to the feeling of overwhelm.

 

Your impact and productivity will be low. Even if you don’t openly admit it, you’re likely to feel angry, resentful and anxious.

 

Over-commitment also risks damage to your reputation. If you let people down or become known as someone with hollow promises, people will stop trusting you.

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Why do we find it so hard to say no?

Because we want to be nice and we want people to like us. ‘No’ is counterintuitive to this notion. When we say ‘no’ we fear the repercussions.

 

Humans crave social and emotional stimuli. Attention, recognition and intimacy are critical for our emotional and physical survival. Psychoanalyst Rene Spitz in his pioneering work on abandoned infants and, consequently, child development, found a clear link between emotional deprivation and an increased death rate.

 

Suddenly, ‘no’ on an elemental level, becomes part of the human fight for survival. ‘No’ can be perceived as a rejection, the very thing that humans are programmed to avoid.

 

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is another reason why people struggle with ‘no’. As social beings, we unconsciously base our beliefs on the current values of society. Modern culture is consumerist and driven by status. This is centred around notions of power and wealth. Image and popularity are highly prized. Success is measured in material things, and by the way we look and are perceived by others.

 

The human instinct to be part of the group is incredibly strong. As Professor Steve Peters outlines in The Chimp Paradox:

“The need to belong to a group is so powerful that we will often compromise our lives and lifestyle to remain as part of the group.”

To say ‘no’ and bow out, we are deliberately separating ourselves from the crowd. We are turning our backs on emotional reward.

 

While these drivers are the ancient remnants of our ancestors, our brains continue to process them in the same way. On top of this deep psychological layer of complexity, sits the workings of current social interaction to complicate things further.

 

The norms, manners and social practices of modern society state that ‘no’ is often perceived to be rude. We are taught to comply, seek acceptance and stick with the group by following the rules and accepted behaviours of society.

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Why we can all learn to say ‘no’ and be comfortable with it

Renowned psychiatrist Eric Berne in his theory of Transactional Analysis, explained human behaviour as a set of three ego states: Parent, Adult and Child.

 

  • Parent Ego State: behaviours, thoughts and feelings which we copy from our parents and figures of authority
  • Adult Ego State: behaviours, thoughts and feelings which deal with the ‘here and now’, direct responses to our current situation
  • Child Ego State: behaviours, thoughts and feelings which we replay from childhood.

 

These three states sum in the entire personality of a person. We continuously move between the different ego states. The nature of social interaction is explained by the ego states occupied by the various parties and the way they interact in any given situation. These interactions are known as transactions.

 

Berne’s model explains clearly why many people struggle with ‘no’, but how it is possible to change this. Berne maintained that we can all think for ourselves and make decisions independently.

 

Our Adult ego state is necessary for survival; ‘it processes data and computes possibilities which are essential for dealing with the outside world’. Thus, in dealing practically and non-emotionally with matters in the here and now we are perfectly able to say ‘no’ when we occupy the Adult ego state.

 

Those who struggle saying ‘no’ will find themselves occupying a different ego state, for example:

 

  • People pleasers spend too much time in the Child ego state, replicating past behaviour trying to please their critical parents.
  • Rescuers, those who believe they have to help everyone, find themselves stuck in the role of a smothering, over-protective Parent ego state.

 

Berne was clear that despite our past and any external influences, we are all capable of making decisions for ourselves and that everyone is redeemable. In understanding the reasons for our behaviour, thoughts and feelings, we can change.

 

For those who have spent their lives as people-pleasers or over-protective rescuers unable to say ‘no’, it is possible to use the neuroplasticity of our brains to redesign and reshape the way we think and behave.

 

Modern humans are more developed than many of the pre-evolutionary drivers that impact on our thoughts and behaviours. Additionally, although we want to people to like us, be popular and gain the approval of others, humans are sophisticated enough to recognise that we shouldn’t be worried about what others think all of the time.

 

It is the constant pull, back and forth, between these different thought processes that makes saying ‘no’ so difficult. The duality of battling our pre-evolutionary drivers while recognising that we are responsible for our own happiness is gruelling.

 

Recognising this is part of the solution, as is understanding on a profound level what saying ‘no’ can do for your life.

 

This is where the words of ancient Greek philosopher Eipcurus can help us out:

 

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having very few wants.”

 

Don’t waste time saying ‘yes’ to everything because you’re afraid of missing something. Instead, turn your attention to what you already have and find meaning in the simple things.

 

Say ‘yes’ to what you already have.

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So how do you say ‘no’ without being rude or feeling guilty?

You have to ensure that you are saying ‘no’ from your Adult ego state. Say ‘no’ in the here and now as an equal to the person you are saying ‘no’ to. Do not allow yourself to slip into the Child who seeks to the gain approval of the controlling Parent, or the superhero of the smothering, nurturing Parent. It is not your job to save the world.

 

The creation of new neural pathways in neuroplasticity occurs with the repetition of thoughts, emotions and behaviours over time. Small changes which are frequently repeated lead to changes in our brains. We become what we think and do. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you want to change, you need to embed new behaviours and thought processes into your life.

 

But precisely what kind of preferred behaviours can you repeat over a prolonged period to enable you to change? Try these five strategies for starters:

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Plan Ahead

When you first start out, it’s going to be difficult. You might find it easier to say no via text or email as you’re getting to grips with this new behaviour. This is OK and a step in the right direction.

 

It’s perfectly acceptable when approached to say that you need to check your diary. Then, afterwards, politely decline.

 

For both interactions, you can use pre-prepared statements you are comfortable with that you can tweak to fit different circumstances:

The approach: “Would you like to come to the party?”

The initial response: “That’s very kind of you, thank you for the offer. I’ll check my diary and let you know.”

The follow up: “Hi, Sarah, thanks for the invite to the party. I’ve checked my diary, and unfortunately, I can’t make it. Have a fantastic time!”

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Keep it simple

The temptation when saying ‘no’ is to offer a justification for your reasoning. We think it’s polite and emotionally soothing and that it takes the sting out of the rejection.

 

However, offering a reason for your ‘no’ changes the dynamic fundamentally. ‘No’ with a reason is interpreted by the receiver as:

 

“I can’t now, even though I want to, because of something that’s out of my control. Please help me find a way.”

 

This is why ‘no’ with a reason is challenged. For example:

Sally: ‘Shall we go for coffee on Friday?”

You: “Sorry I can’t. I’ve got to mow the lawn.”

Sally: “Oh, OK. Let’s do it on Saturday instead.”

A determined person will push the matter until they get what they want. The simple way to deal with this is not to allow the other person any room for a comeback.

Sally: ‘Shall we go for coffee on Friday?”

You: “Sorry I can’t.”

Sally: “Oh, OK.”

If this seems too brutal and you simply can’t do this without a justification, find an important blanket reason that shuts down the situation. Don’t make up a long-winded excuse that could trip you up further down the line. Be calm and polite but keep it simple.

Sally: ‘Shall we go for coffee on Friday?”

You: “Sorry I can’t. I’m focussing on spending my time with my family at the moment.”

Sally: “Oh, OK. Let me know when you’d like to catch up.”
You: “Thank you.”

It’s up to you to choose to follow up if/when you want to.

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Be aware of ego states and Ulterior Transactions

Be conscious of Berne’s ego states and ensure that you remain in your Adult.

 

Simple transactions between people are complementary and are mutually beneficial. The most straightforward transactions are between Adults, and Parent and Child.

Adult: Can you come to the meeting next week? I need your help 

Adult: Of course, send me the details, and I’ll be there.

 

Or

 

Child: Joe has really upset me.

Parent: I’m really sorry to hear that. Tell me what happened.

Ulterior transactions are more complex. They occur when the psychological message is different than the social message. Three or even four ego states can be at play. These transactions can feel emotional and tiresome as you continuously have to decode the real message that’s hidden underneath.

Social level:
Shop Assistant (Adult): Yes, we have the perfume, but it’s very expensive.

Shopper (Adult): I’ll take it.

 

Psychological level:
Shop Assistant (Adult to Child): Yes, we have the perfume, but it’s very expensive.

Shopper (Child): I’ll show you that I am good enough. You can’t hurt me!

 

Or

 

Social level:
Dave (Adult): I like your new car, it suits you.

Mark (Adult): Thanks. It didn’t cost much. It’s just a temporary fix.

 

Psychological level:
Dave (Parent): I feel sorry for you. I know that car is all you can afford.

Mark (Child): I know my car is a heap of junk! Don’t patronise me!

This type of behaviour is used to elicit donations. It’s why you’re told that ‘most people donate X amount’. This aggressive approach is directed at your Child ego state. Stay in your Adult and resist:

Representative (Adult): I’m sure you’d love to donate something for the charity ball. Most people give $100. Shall I put you down for the same amount?

Responder (as Child): Oh, OK. Yes, that’s fine.

 

Instead:

 

Representative (Adult): I’m sure you’d love to donate something for the charity ball. Most people give $100. Shall I put you down for the same amount?

Responder (as Adult): I’d love to donate. Please put me down for $50.

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Propose an alternative – IF you would like to

If you find yourself in a situation where you really can’t say ‘yes’ even though you’d like to, say ‘no’ with an alternative. You might choose to use this with people you are closest to, or those that are important in your network:

Colleague: “Can you help me with this report? I am behind!”

You: “Apologies, I’ve got lots to do myself, but I can answer your phone and take messages while you focus on it.”

Remember, keep the alternatives manageable, otherwise there ceases to be a point.

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Ask yourself the ‘Now’ Question

The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, poses an excellent question:

 

“If I had to do this today, would I agree to it?”

 

If the answer is ‘no’, then that is your decision. The day will always come when the ‘yes’ that you promised comes to the top of your to-do list. If you don’t want it on there, don’t accept in the first place.

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No Doesn’t Have to Be a Rejection

Despite what our limbic brain might believe, ‘no’ doesn’t have to equate to rejection. When used simply and with honesty, it’s a statement about your current situation. People will realise that ‘no’ is actually about you and that it’s not a rejection of them.

 

If you are someone that rarely says ‘no’, people might be surprised to hear the word pass your lips at first. Do not be deterred. As you use it more frequently, they will grow accustomed to the fact that you exercise your right to choose.

 

After all, saying ‘no’ saves time for you to say ‘yes’ when you want to.

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References:

Berne, M.D., E. (1964). Games People Play. Penguin Random House UK.

Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox. Vermilion.

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