How to Say ‘No’ (and mean it)

how to say no.jpg

Clarity Leads to Clarity

I was in a meeting recently to organise an event later in the year. We agreed on the format and the roles and we were summarising at the end. One member of the group said,

You know what, I love this event and I think I can help by getting the right people in the room but I don’t want to take a role in organising.


I loved what she said because, to me, it was as helpful to know what she couldn’t do as it was to know what the others could.

It happened again when I asked a colleague whether he’d be able to present a seminar in a town a few hours away.

Sorry, no. I just don’t see myself travelling down.

Again, great!

We discussed it a couple of times because I wanted to be sure why he was saying no and what was in the way, but I appreciated the decision we arrived at.

In both these cases it felt clear to me what someone was committing to, and where they were drawing a line around the commitment—which made it much easier for me to move forward with the projects.

Why is It Hard to Say ‘No’?

Why then, do we sometimes struggle to say no? Why do we agonise, prevaricate, and get ourselves tied in knots over a simple two-letter word?

It looks to me like there are two reasons why this is the case:

  1. The first is that we don’t know. We don’t know whether we have the time or resources, we don’t know what’s involved, we need to find out more. Or we don’t know because we need time to think about it and let the idea settle with us before we can feel into whether it’s for us. Or we want to say yes but there are implications, and we need to think these through. Can I juggle X for Z? Maybe, maybe not. And there’s an obvious response in that case—not the one-word ‘yes’, or ‘no’, but a three-word ‘I don’t know’. Maybe even an ‘I’ll get back to you on that’.

  2. The other reason, or set of reasons, is because we’ve created a narrative around the request, and around our response. Maybe we think there’s an upside—I want to say ‘yes’ because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, I’ll look good, I’m flattered to be asked, etc, etc. Or maybe we’re playing out a downside to the ‘no’—I’ll look bad, what will they think of me, will this affect me down the line, will I lose my bonus, will I even lose my job? And, sure, sometimes there are real risks to decisions we make, but it’s extraordinary how much of the narrative is created in a vacuum of our own imaginings.

No Rules

When we really get settled it’s easy to see that there is never a single way that things are, and there is never a single right way to respond.

I don’t think we should behave according to rules in the same way I don’t think we should be bound, or bind others, by definitions we sometimes impose about what sort of person they / we are, or what sort of person does x, y, z. (or doesn’t do it.)

It’s far better to see that there’s always space to rise to above the personal, where clarity is the starting point, decisions make themselves because the next step is obvious, and communication is easy because there’s nothing in the way of saying what we mean.

It’s a more fruitful exploration to look at what gets in the way of that clarity, than it is to explore tactics for saying more of what we mean from a place of clouded judgement.

With love,