I used to struggle to say no to anything: I mean anything. Like giving my name to some creepy man just because he walked up and asked for it. I felt guilty if I dropped the ball on a commitment, I had promised a friend or realized I had taken on too much to handle. Saying “no” to a friend is something many of us struggle with because we have been taught to be polite and helpful. But one of the skills of living in an increasingly demanding world is learning to give the right kind of no. A good no needs to be guilt-free, kind, and clarifying. Recently, I picked up a copy of a revised book by Emily Post, the modern version of her famous blue book of etiquette. Though many of the rules she formally set out for her 1922 audience have left the pages of its modern equivalent, the art of clear communication is never out of style.

A Clear No is a Gift

We are often tempted to obscure our “no” in a list of reasons why we would if we could but simply cannot. Even after we say no, we can feel guilty. I would like to replace your potential guilt-ladened, stammered answer with this thought: A clear “no” is a gift. It can end an inappropriate advancement without inviting further interaction. It can also free up a friendly requester to find an alternative solution without guessing whether you will come through or misunderstanding your answer as a yes. It is polite to give an answer, but you do not owe anyone more than a simple “yes” or “no.” This technique can be especially effective in the case of people who continue to pressure you, perhaps by imposing their silence while they wait for you to backtrack. They are banking on you to fill the sense of awkwardness with words, usually an apology or explanation, but that same silence can be used in your favor. “No” can often be enough. You are not obligated to somehow “earn” your release by justifying it with a reason. If you want to tell a friend the reason you cannot do something, that is perfectly fine. However, you do not owe anyone a reason. Instead, you can still give a kind no by adding a compliment. “No but thank you for asking.” “I can’t help, but I would love to hear how the project is going.” “I cannot do that for you, but I love your idea.”

A Current No Does Not Have to Mean “Never”

Sometimes you must say no but would truly like to have been able to say “yes.” In this case, clarity is best too. “I’m sorry I cannot do that now, but please ask me again in the future.” This indicates to the person or organization that you wish to be “kept on the list,” so only say it if you truly want to be reapproached with the idea. Don’t use it to cushion a “no” and secretly hope they never bring it up again.

Above all, give yourself permission to say no. My friend, Rob Adkins, once said to me, “Lindsey, the problem there’s only you and there’s not very much of you.” His words were wise: We can only do so much at one time. Be choosy, so you can give proper time and attention to the best things without over-extending yourself to all things.

Keep in Touch!

Join my mailing list to receive new skills and stories from history.

You have Successfully Subscribed!