You want to say “no.” You have every intention of saying “no.” But the same old “yes” keeps coming out of your mouth.
In Part 1, I covered the reasons why saying “no” is so difficult and ended up blaming our ancestors for the problem. I described the consequences for uttering the nearly-forbidden word. I also outlined critical philosophical points about how your frame of mind supports your determination to take back your time (and your life).
Part 1 was philosophical, Part 2 is practical.
Now it’s time to explain exactly how to approach different scenarios where you want to say “no” but don’t. Let’s start with a karate analogy…
Section 4: Avoiding Being Asked1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, sometimes slightly off topic, but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Earning a black belt in karate is not about mastering skills so that you can seek out fights. Instead, it’s about mastering skills that allow you to win fights that you can’t avoid. That philosophy applies to our situation:
Learning to say “no” is not about mastering skills so that you can seek out ways to reject other people. Instead, it’s about mastering skills that allow you turn down requests that you can’t avoid.
In this section:
- The fine art of avoidance
- Avoiding time leeches
- Managing your social media
The fine art of avoidance
If you aren’t present, you can’t be asked. Thus, avoidance is an essential technique. If you master nothing but avoidance and never get any better at saying “no,” you’ll still make serious progress on reclaiming your life.
It takes some thoughtful planning to not show up, or to at least cut way back on showing up to places or situations where takers congregate.
That might be the den of vipers in the office breakroom. It might be your neighbor’s out-of-control backyard party or your extended family’s annual
mud fight reunion. It could even be the local charity meeting that is starting to overwhelm your life.
You know the places where you’ll be asked to donate time, emotion, attention, or money that you don’t want to part with.
Pull away, using whatever excuse you think will work, until a new pattern has been established and your attendance is no longer expected:
Avoiding the office break room: “I’ve been so busy lately. I need to use my lunch hour to run errands / catch up on gift shopping / exercise.”
Avoiding the family reunion: “We’re going to start our own tradition of an annual family campout this year.”
Avoiding an overwhelming charity commitment: “My family commitments have gotten seriously out of control. I’ll still get your emails, but I can’t come to the meetings anymore.”
I’ll address social media in a moment, and you’ll find more tips under Section 6: Advanced “no” techniques.
Avoiding time leeches
If your biggest challenge is long-talkers sucking away your time, then avoiding them as much as possible will be your go-to move.
It’s harder to avoid a request for attention in the moment:
“You’ll never believe what just happened to me!”
…than it is to avoid a request for future involvement:
“Let’s do dinner so I can tell you what just happened to me.”
So, easing yourself out of the orbit of in-the-moment takers is the best solution.
“But,” you say, “time leeches stalk me!”
I’ve heard from many people who just want to get work done at work and make a point not to hang out with talkative slackers. Their problem is that the slackers seek them out, cornering them in locations with no escape like a lion ambushing a gazelle.
If headphones and fake virtual meetings don’t send a strong enough message, then you’ll have to edge out of the empathy zone. Nothing kills an over-sharer’s enthusiasm like a little judgment:
“Do you really think that was the best choice you could have made?”
“Well, I sure wouldn’t have said that in that situation.”
Painful, perhaps, but you can get the words out if you just let your frustration and impatience boil over instead of clamping a lid on it.
Now about those virtual commitments…
Managing your social media
Doing your best not to show up, but still finding yourself drawn into the drama through social media? Facebook, et al. can undoubtedly lead to requests for your time (and certainly your money!) but its specialty is sucking away your emotional commitment.
You have a few choices:
Don’t show up (again!)
As with physical locations where askers congregate, virtual hangouts can be a quicksand of obligations. Groups on any social media platform must be considered with a critical eye.
If necessary, work yourself over to the fringes of the group by decreasing your interaction, then quietly slip out the back, so to speak.
Interact less, lurk more
Stop telling the algorithm that you desperately want to see every meal your sister eats. Look but don’t like. Over time, you’ll see less and less of it.
As with any change in life, it doesn’t have to be accomplished all at once. Start with the person or group you most need to draw away from, assess the impact on your life, then pick another.
I know this is simple stuff, but I’m always surprised at how many people feel pressured to commit to things online. Anything that is not face-to-face falls into the “you have no excuse” category when it comes to making changes. Difficult, a little, but not that difficult.
Note: For those pesky and insistent direct messages or texts, I provide more ideas in Section 6.
OK. Avoidance is just the appetizer. Time to get to the challenging items in the main course. We can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to spit the actual word “no” – or some form of it – out of your mouth.
Section 5: “No” Options
Ready to take action? Here’s your menu of options, in order from easiest to hardest. Some will apply more than others to your situation; read, think, and come up with a strategy that works for you.
In this section:
- Soft “no’s”: evasive maneuvers
- Semi-soft “no’s”: vague untruths
- Semi-hard “no’s”: intentional untruths
- Semi-hard “no’s”: “yes” (but with qualifications)
- Hard “no’s”: gentle honesty
- Rock hard “no’s”: harsh honesty
Picture the situations where you are most likely to have your time or attention sucked away. Picture the people you will have to deal with to alter the scenario. With that in mind, consider your course of action…
Soft no’s: evasive maneuvers
The softest “no” that you can say to somebody comes down to being evasive. This is when you create excuses that aren’t entirely false about being busy or having other commitments.
Sure, other nebulous commitments exist, hypothetically. But your allegedly packed schedule might contain nothing but large blocks of time labeled “only doing things I feel like doing.”
You’re not outright saying “I can’t,” just a hazy, inferred “I probably won’t be able to” with no intention of following up at all.
For somebody mastering the art of saying “no,” evasion is the starting point. Like taking medicine, using the minimum effective dose is called for.
Amateur: “I’ll have to check my schedule.”
- This leaves the door of possibility too far open.
Master: “I think I have something already planned.”
- This signals a reasonably clear lack of intention to ever follow up.
Amateur: “I’m swamped right now.”
- This slides right by nearly all socializers. It’s not even worth messing with.
Master: (Looks at phone) “Oh, I think I missed a call from my doctor’s office. I’ve been trading voicemails…”
- They might wonder about your medical condition, but rarely will anyone press for details.
Semi-soft no’s: vague untruths
Now we cross the line into lying…I mean, untruthing.3
Rather than a hazy assertion that there is probably some unnamed commitment keeping you from participating (as with evasion, above), you actually name a commitment.
As mentioned earlier, the get-out-of-jail-free card is that you have a family event, because people generally don’t question those.
Note: Family commitments you want to avoid will be covered more specifically in a bit.
Don’t provide details! Name the event or obligation that you’re committed to, but don’t be specific about when this event will occur.
Amateur: “I have a family/friend/work event on Saturday.”
- This will inevitably invite questions about details that you are unprepared to offer.
Master: “My sister/friend/boss is planning a get-together on Saturday.”
- Just enough details to forestall further questions and planning doesn’t mean it will ever happen. After all, someone else is in charge of the plan, not you.
Semi-hard no’s: intentional untruths
When someone is persistently seeking your involvement and none of the previous steps have worked – and you just aren’t able to be totally honest – then it’s time to slide over the line to white lies.
lying untruthing involves fabricating an event that directly conflicts with the commitment a requestor is trying to get you to make. This may be an event that you sometimes do, such as feeding your neighbor’s cat, but you are explicitly naming it, and the commitment doesn’t actually exist.
Of course, if you’re being crafty, you make sure that it’s a commitment that can’t be checked. Only amateurs voice a commitment to another person that can be easily investigated.
Amateur: “My grandson’s graduation is that day.” Or: “My girlfriend wants to see a play.”
- Way too easy to get caught on this one. Never use a public event that can be looked up online or that others may know something about, as in, “Really? I know a kid graduating, too! What school?”
Master: “My granddaughter wants me to take her fishing.” Or: “My girlfriend is taking me rock climbing.”
- You can’t be boxed in on this one. Fishing where? “Not sure yet…depends on when her soccer practice is over.” Climbing rocks where? “I can’t say…my girlfriend is in charge of that.” In other words, “I’m committed but don’t control the outcome.” Perfect for later deniability.
Are you ready to enter the big leagues? Time to leave the lies behind.
Semi-hard no’s: “yes” (but with qualifications)
Agreeing to a bit of commitment – but not all of it! – is a baby step toward a full-throated “no.” It’s honest (mostly), but not so harsh and conflict-ridden.
No amateurs anymore! If you can say any form of “no,” then you’re entering the realm of Master.
“Yes, I can help you with designing your yard sale posters, but I can just sketch a few things out. I don’t have time to create a digital version.”
“I can’t volunteer for the garbage cleanup, but I can make some phone calls for you.”
“I’ll make my famous radish salad and drop it off the afternoon before the event, but I can’t attend.”
It’s not perfect, but a qualified “yes” is better than an unconditional “yes.”
Don’t make this your go-to, though. You must use it judiciously, and usually in those situations where you just can’t say a hard “no,” such as with family.
Hard no’s: gentle honesty
It shouldn’t have to be a goal to speak with honesty; it should be the natural way of talking. But it’s not, so you must work your way up to it. We start at the gentle level – providing a reasonable justification for not doing something so the other person can save face instead of feeling personally rejected.Saying no. So easy to think it, so hard to get the word out of your mouth. Click To Tweet
Gentle honesty comes down to telling the other person that the activity is just not something that you’re interested in doing. You’re not saying you won’t do it (that’s the next step), you’re saying that it’s not something that you feel any compulsion to pursue, even if it’s a personal favor to them.
This is distinct from the earlier options: we aren’t making up a conflict that, alas, is keeping us from committing even though – if we didn’t have this unfortunate other thing – we’d love to do it. Instead, we are saying that we could do it, we just won’t, because.
It’s subtly different, but it’s harder to pull off because you’re skating closer to the line of outright rejection and those caveman instincts will fight against it.
“I’m a basic Excel user; I don’t have time to figure out what you need done.”
“Video editing is not my thing. I can barely take a decent picture.”
“My back won’t stand up to moving furniture. If I even look at a couch, it starts to ache.”
“My house is just not safe for watching children. I’m afraid to walk through my living room barefoot myself.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now. I’ve got too much on my mind getting ready for a meeting at work tomorrow.”
You see the pattern: I won’t do (A) because of (B). Honest, but still providing a small justification to keep the other person from feeling outright rejected.
Be warned: Once you’ve entered the realm of honesty, you may be forced to go all the way…
Rock-hard no’s: harsh honesty
We’ve arrived at the pinnacle of mastery: simply telling someone that you don’t want to help them. Odd that full honesty would be called harsh, but that’s precisely the way it comes across:
“No. I don’t feel like it.”
…sounds selfish, doesn’t it? And even mean-spirited, especially when you’re asked “why” and you respond with:
“I’d rather watch TV, or read, or pretty much do anything besides go appliance shopping with you.”
It almost seems lazy, like you can’t even be bothered to put in a bit of effort to manufacture a good excuse that lets the other person down easy. This level of honesty is so rare that only a few people can pull it off, and usually only with a handful of other people.
What’s that? The pinnacle of mastery isn’t enough? You want to go to 11?5 Then it’s time to go where few people dare to tread: Advanced Techniques.
Section 6: Advanced “No” Techniques
If you think getting your mouth to say the word “no” is hard…advanced techniques are even more challenging because they involve altering people’s perception of your character.
In this section:
- Establishing a “no” zone
- Expanding your “no” zone
- Becoming unreliable
Most people do not like to find themselves in positions requiring them to say “no” constantly because it’s stressful. There’s only one way out of this situation, aside from becoming a total recluse: altering people’s perception of you so they know in advance that you’ll tell them “no,” at least in certain circumstances.
It can be difficult up front, but it’s much better than continually coming up with excuses to tell people “no.” As a bonus, you will establish a more-independent personality. People may not like that you aren’t available anymore, but that feeling comes with a bit of respect for having the spine to stand up to requests.
If you are genuinely attempting to gain control of your life, this is the direction that you must go. It’s a step-by-step process.
Establishing a “no” zone
This is the easiest step, and the natural outgrowth of saying any form of hard “no.” Once you get the first “no” out of your mouth, you keep saying it over and over until you become known for that one thing that you just won’t do, ever.
Start with the thing that you most desperately want to avoid. Plant your flag on that hill and refuse to be dislodged, no matter what. Some of your “no’s” may be soft, some may be hard(ish), but no matter what, you don’t ever commit, even a little.
People will eventually get the picture that asking you to help with spring cleaning, or winterizing their boat, or propping up their ego will result in rejection. They’ll move on to other victims.
Yes, maybe others will think you’re stubborn (or worse), but eventually, they will come to accept that it’s just your thing. And if they don’t…then that is their decision.
Over time, you’ll develop a reputation for having a difficult personality in this area. People will have to decide whether they accept that or not. Yes, they will talk behind your back, but if they value the relationship, they’ll get over it.
Beware: Agreeing every once in a while restarts the training process!
Susan never ever agrees to attend the family Thanksgiving dinner, the annual inebriated screaming match that traumatizes her children.
Renato never ever sticks around to gossip at work. Anytime his long-winded coworkers start to monopolize the conversation with diatribes about the company, he looks at the time on his phone, says, “Hey, I gotta go,” and walks away.
Video: Incremental “no” and personality change
3 minutes, 56 seconds | subtitles available
Expanding your “no” zone
It won’t take long for you to get used to the reality that not everyone in the world must like or accept you. Then your next step follows naturally:
Expand your original “no” zone to include other, related items, events, or people.
Susan establishes a firm tradition of dropping off presents and cookies on Christmas Eve and making Christmas day an event for just her immediate family. After that, she works on the Independence Day barbecue (otherwise known as “beer, bratwursts, and blasphemy”).
Renato begins coming up with reasons to never attend the weekly post-work, off-site bitchfests and gradually starts wearing his headphones longer and longer each day. His productivity skyrockets, which compensates for any whisperings that he’s no longer a team player.
Are you still unable to say “no” in any form, but desperately want to reclaim your time/life? I have one final option, but it’s a tough one to pull off for most people.
If all else fails, bail.6
If you can inject at least a tiny bit of wiggle room into your “yes,” as in:
“Sure, I can come to your scrapbooking party, but I can’t bring any food…I’ll be running late that day.”
“I might be able to edit all the class photos. Send them to me, and I’ll see if I can do anything.”
…then you can start building your reputation as “she who never follows through” by not showing up for or doing whatever you sort of committed to. You take that small pre-excuse you floated and run with it.
Pro: You get to avoid the painful moment of denying their request outright, and you avoid the time-suck, too. Sweet!
Con: Your reputation won’t be “Camille prefers to do her own thing.” It will be “Camille always flakes out.”
If you can stand that, then you can be
crazy flaky like a fox. You can still be someone’s friend, they’ll just have to accept that you are their unreliable friend.
Pro tip: Don’t do the last-minute excuse text or direct message! If you are going to be unreliable, then go all the way. If someone calls or messages with a “Where are you?” or a “Did you finish that stuff?” then wait at least a day, preferably longer, to respond.
“Sorry. Missed your text. I forgot. Maybe next time?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t get to that. Sorry, meant to let you know.”
We are going for, “Jon is unreliable,” not “Jon always has a last-minute excuse.” Own your new character trait and play the role with commitment!
Congratulations! You’ve completed all the courses in the OverExamined Life Academy of Denial. You are now certified in all the various methods for saying “no.” This isn’t just a book learnin’ exercise, though; to get your diploma, you’re going to have to pass the final exam out in the real world.
You can use my downloadable roadmap to make your plan.
And you’ll need to answer one question…
What will you do with your time?
You have a big responsibility in life – a responsibility to yourself. Not exclusively, but substantially.
I’ve given you every possible option for living the life of “no,” including options that don’t involve actually saying the word. So, you have one final decision to make:
When you become a Certified Master of Denial, what will you do with all your free time?
Your time is your time to do with as you desire…waste, invest, binge-watch away, whatever. You get to decide how you spend it and with whom you spend it. However…
A guiding principle of this website is giving you the mental tools for self-improvement, so I’ll make a case for investing time rather than wasting it. Check out my Start Here page for ideas.
But first, you have an assignment. Use my comments section below to practice saying the “no” to someone that you haven’t been able to get out of your mouth before.
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.