The importance of saying no

27th of July 2022

It’s always scary to say no, we are afraid of offending the other person, burning a bridge or sounding rude, but saying no is an important part of relationships.

The lack of saying no will always put us in an unpleasant position, people will think that they can always rely on us to do things they don’t want to do and that we can do everything (spoiler, we can not), this will give them the false belief that we don’t have boundaries and they can come and go as they want.

And what does this do for us? It slowly destroys us, making us very angry. There is an amazing clip from the movie Anger Management, about the difference between explosive and implosive anger, which simply but effectively explains it. Not saying no builds up anger inside of us, which eventually needs to vent out, by either completely cutting this person from our lives (blocking them, changing jobs, etc) or starting to get into other personal spaces (always thinking about this problem even when we are in a completely different environment).

That’s why learning to say no is so important. By saying no, in a polite, but firm way, we are setting our own boundaries and respecting ourselves. Yes, some people won’t like that we have boundaries, they may get angry, or disappointed, and they may even try to manipulate you into conceding, but if they can not respect other people's limits, that’s their problem, not yours.

Giving a clear NO in our answer

One of the most important things is to have a clear answer in our answer. It may sound redundant, but how many times have you heard something along the lines:

Can you do X for me?

I’m afraid I’m a bit busy with Y right now.

OK, no problem, you can do it after you’re finished with that.

Do you see the problem here? Where does the second person say no? They are suggesting that they can not do the work, but they never clearly state it.

It is important to always give clear answers. If you are saying no, make sure that the word no is in the sentence, else it is a suggestion.

If you add that to the sentence, it’ll sound firm, but still polite.

No, I can not, I’m afraid I’m a bit busy with Y right now.

You don’t need to justify yourself

No is enough. You don’t need to be justifying yourself when denying a request.

I can not, I have to go to pick up my son at school and today my partner is working until late so if I don’t go they will be alone

When we are justifying ourselves, we are trying to show the other person that our reason to say no is right. We are giving them the authority to decide if our argument is valid or not.

Mike Monteiro has a very interesting talk called F*ck you, Pay me. There is a section where he analyzes a case of a client that doesn’t want to pay their designer, where a proposed solution is to “write a heart-wrenching letter”. He takes it very harshly:

The minute that you write a heart-wrenching letter, the minute you appeal to their emotions, you have given up any bit of leverage that you had in that relationship, you have shown them your belly, you have shown them that you don’t think you have a leg to stand on other than playing upon guilt.

While he strictly speaks about business relationships, a business relationship is still a relationship and there are some things I wish to extract from that argument.

Saying no to something we don’t want to do is ok. We don’t need to appeal to the other person, to beg them to feel empathy for us and forgive us for saying no. We have our own reasons to deny a request.

If we are always trying to justify ourselves, we are making ourselves look small, we are pretending that we own them that but we can not do it. That’s a gateway to power unbalance. We need to be able to deny a request without feeling bad.

Unless the other person has the authority to require a valid excuse (e.g.: our boss), any other person doesn’t need one.

I am NOT saying that we do not often do things that we do not “feel” like doing for the sake of others or a relationship. Sacrifice is key to any good relationship. I am referring to the freedom to say “no” to the sacrifices we do not choose to make.

Don’t apologize, give your thanks instead

Sometimes, we can not do something we committed to, or the other person is insisting on us saying yes.

A trick for which a lot of people fall is apologizing, saying sorry.

I can not do it today, I have other priorities, I’m sorry.

Why are we apologizing? Did we do anything wrong? Is it our fault that we don’t have time or we don’t want to do it?

Apologizing is a negative thing, it brings guilt to ourselves, makes us look like the bad guy and, again, generates a power imbalance.

So, how can we fix this? There is a very easy trick to invert the situation, moving the negative focus from ourselves to a positive focus on the other person. It can help our “no” become polite but definitive. Saying thank you. Specifically, thank you for understanding.

I can not do it today, I have other priorities. Thank you for your understanding.

When you thank the person, you are throwing the ball to them. You are making them look good while not putting yourself down.

Most people will get the message and see it as something completely sensible. It is not your fault and you don’t owe them anything.

"Thank You" was the solution I was looking for. In addition to being less self-deprecating, thank you signals gratitude, positivity, and recognition while emphasising the receiver of the words, rather than the speaker. (…) It doesn't guilt people into feeling for you, it doesn't feel fake, and it shifted my mindset from one of timidness and submission to one of confidence and empowerment.

Of course, there will always be people that won’t “understand” you, disregarding your gratitude. I’m afraid I don’t have any particular tips for handling stubborn people like that more than keeping your “no” firm until they accept it. Because, if you give up and do what they ask, you have taught them that if they insist, they’ll get what they want.


This is what I have been discovering through experience and reading over the years. I have talked with a lot of people who had the issue of taking too much responsibility and expecting the other person to suddenly empathize with them and remove that responsibility. Or people who explain their problem: “I have X and Y today” but they never added the word “no” in that sentence and then it frustrates them when the other person doesn’t see that they are receiving a rejection.

It’s important to be clear about what we want. And to be firm when communicating it.

It took me a long time to change my mindset, but doing so helps me with my everyday life, and makes me a happier person.

Saying “no” is a sign of self-respect. A sign of putting yourself first, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. If you can not put yourself first, you can’t expect anyone else to do it.


Saying No is Enough - You Don't Have to Justify It

Video: Mike Monteiro: F*ck You, Pay Me

I Started Saying "Thank You" Instead of "Sorry," and It Changed My Life

Video: An Antidote to Dissatisfaction