How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty: 6 Secrets From Experts
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They’re asking you for something. And you feel like if you say no, they’re going to hate you. So you’re tempted to say yes, even though you don’t want to. Ever been there? We all have.
But if you say yes, you’re going to be frustrated with yourself. And you’ll likely feel resentful and angry with them… even though you could have just said no.
And research shows this not only creates a cycle of awful feelings, it actually does real damage to your relationships. Yes, being “too nice” can cause legit problems.
Conflict avoidance is not an ingredient of successful relationships. Rather, it is a serious symptom of dysfunctional ones. It’s better to recognize that negative emotions between people are inevitable, and you must learn to deal with them effectively… If you cannot express negative feelings, your relationships will simply lose their authenticity.
So how do you say no without feeling guilty? Experts and research have answers. Let’s get to it…
1) Notice the No’s
Times when you said no and someone got angry stick in your memory like billboards made of neon. But the truth is people say no to requests all the time and suffer no ill consequences. The sea doesn’t turn to blood and frogs don’t fall from the sky. The requester just shrugs and says, “Okay.”
But you forget those all too easily and train your attention on the 0.02% of the time when the other person blew up and stormed away, never to speak to you again.
So watch your interactions and the interactions of others more closely. Notice all the times “no” doesn’t cause any problems and try to develop a more realistic perspective.
Gain a little perspective by becoming aware of how often people around you say no to each other from day to day. When you really pay attention, you’ll find that it happens all the time, and in most cases it’s no big deal. Keep that in mind when it’s your turn to say no in similar situations, and when someone’s saying it to you.
And watch how others handle these situations effectively. When you’re polite and empathetic, it’s not all that likely that someone is going to get furious with you.
You want to develop good boundaries. Have an idea of what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not ahead of time so that decisions are easier and you’re not as tempted to cave.
Saying no comfortably and without guilt requires you to really think about what you stand for. Why are you saying no? As you learn to eliminate unwanted obligations from your life, what are you making room for? When you can identify and embrace your priorities and focus on what you want more of—for example, time with the family, money for an important project or cause—you feel more justified saying no in order to pursue those goals.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
But this all takes time. And maybe someone is asking you for something unreasonable right now. So what should your default response be so that you don’t give them a knee-jerk “yes” you’ll regret later?
2) Buy Time
“You must respond to requests immediately” is not one of the immutable laws of thermodynamics. (Frankly, I don’t know what the immutable laws of thermodynamics are, but I’m pretty darn sure that ain’t one of them.)
So when you feel pressured for a yes, don’t give the yes — relieve the pressure. Ask for time. This will allow you to calm down and properly evaluate whether you really want to agree or not.
In order to break your habit of giving an automatic “yes” response to requests from others, you need to delay your answer in order to think through your options carefully. The old adage to think before you speak—or, in this case, agree—is wise psychological advice. Once you learn to insert time between an invitation, demand, or request and your reply, your sense of control will immediately increase.
Best way to do this? Memorize two of these phrases and make them your default response to any request:
- “I need to check my calendar; I’ll get back to you.”
- “Let me check with my husband/wife/partner to see if we’re free that day.”
- “I’ve got to think about that; I’ll let you know.”
- “I’ll have to call you back in a few minutes.”
Don’t turn them into questions. They’re statements. And use a pleasant but assertive tone.
(To learn the morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
But what if buying time doesn’t cool you down enough to be comfortable giving them a big ol’ “nope”?
3) Have A “Policy”
No, this has nothing to do with insurance. We’re back to the issue of boundaries. When you live by clear principles it’s easier to make decisions and people are more likely to respect your responses.
Also, there’s less chance of someone feeling personally rejected if it’s clear this is a “rule” you live by consistently.
…suppose a friend asks for a loan you don’t want to extend. Utter the phrase “Sorry, I have a policy about not lending money,” and your refusal immediately sounds less personal. In all kinds of situations, invoking a policy adds weight and seriousness when you need to say no. It implies that you’ve given the matter considerable thought on a previous occasion and learned from experience that what the person is requesting is unwise. It can also convey that you’ve got a prior commitment you can’t break. When you turn down an invitation by saying, “Sorry, I can’t come—it’s our policy to have dinner together as a family every Friday night,” it lets the other person know that your family ritual is carved in stone.
(To learn how to increase your self-esteem, click here.)
But every rule has exceptions. And persistent people will seek to find them by nagging you with why their request is special, unique and covered in glitter.
So how do you deal with people who don’t take no for an answer?
4) Be A “Broken Record”
First thing to do is say you can’t help them. The second through seven-hundredth thing to do is repeat the first thing:
Them: “Can you help me bury this body?”
You: “Sorry, I can’t.”
Them: “What if we bury it tomorrow? You available then?”
You: “Sorry, I can’t.”
Them: “I’ll let you use the fancy shovel…”
You: “Sorry, I can’t.”
This exercise teaches you persistence and doesn’t allow people to bargain because you just keep repeating your denial, not responding to their new angles or reasoning.
Don’t get angry or raise your voice. Just calmly repeat yourself until the other person is utterly exhausted.
Be careful not to respond directly or to engage in the content of the requester’s resistance attempts… If you stay on your simple message, the requester will not succeed in pressuring you to respond… It is important that you do not engage in any negotiation. This is new territory for you. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a bargaining posture where there’s a chance that your old people-pleasing habits will take over and you’ll find yourself saying “yes” when you want to say something else.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
The “broken record” technique is quite powerful with salespeople, but a bit cold for closer relationships. So how do you say no in a way that doesn’t seem uncaring or selfish?
5) Use A “Relational Account”
Wharton professor Adam Grant pulls this method from the research:
…it involves referencing your commitment to other people when declining the focal person. Studies by Hannah Riley Bowles and Linda Babcock reveal that when we offer relational accounts for going against the norm, we’re viewed more favorably, as we preserve our image as giving and caring.
So how do you do this? Your response should take the structure of: “If I helped you, I’d be letting others down.” When Adam gets mentoring requests that he needs to say no to, he replies:
Students are my top priority professionally, and since I teach more than 300 students per year, I don’t have the bandwidth to take on additional mentoring.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
But what if you don’t want to give a flat no? You want to help but can’t commit to the specifics of what they’re asking for. Here’s what to do…
6) Make A Counteroffer
It’s a worthwhile charity supporting a good cause you believe in…
And they want you to donate $487,000. Um, no way. But I can give you $10…
…if a friend asks you to spend four hours volunteering at an event, you might respond by saying that you can’t do four hours but you can spend one or two. Be careful not to fall into the trap of using this option too often or too much. You should reserve the counteroffer for situations where you really do not wish to give a definitive “no.” Your reason for not saying a flat “no” should be because complying with the request is really something you want to do—or, at least, wouldn’t mind doing, but you need to modify the demand to meet your conditions and best interests.
And you can make a counteroffer to almost any request by offering someone a different resource or the name of someone else who might help.
Again, Wharton professor Adam Grant provides some useful examples:
- “I’m not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something else.”
- “This isn’t in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who might be helpful.”
(To learn how to be more assertive, click here.)
Alright, we’re learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and discover the best not-scary way to start practicing these skills so you’ll be able to use them with anyone…
Here’s how to say no without feeling guilty:
- Notice the no’s: Saying no rarely leads to vendettas or blood feuds. It’s more common and less risky than you think.
- Buy time: I’m not sure I can summarize this one right now. I’ll get back to you later.
- Have a “policy”: Sorry, but it’s my policy to never summarize the third point.
- Be a “broken record”: I can’t summarize this. I can’t summarize this. I can’t summarize this.
- Use a “relational account”: If I summarized this for you I wouldn’t have time to summarize for others.
- Make a counteroffer: I can’t summarize this but I can link you to another blog that will.
So using these techniques with loved ones, close friends or your boss might be really scary because the stakes feel so high. So don’t do it. At least at first…
But next time someone bugs you on the street to fill out a survey, or a pushy salesperson goes to work on you, don’t just walk away. This is a low-stakes time for some “no no no” practice.
In training learners to deal with commercial situations, many of them say that they just shut the door in the salesman’s face because they don’t want to even bother with him and his nonsense. I advise these students that assertively coping with situations like these that are not important is a safe, low-risk, real-life method of practicing to be systematically assertive in preparation for the more meaningful conflicts they have with other people.
Need any more tips? No?
Wow, you’re getting better at this already.
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