Our capacity to give, to focus on what we value most, is finite. So is our time to do it.
As we think about what we want to commit to in this next year, it’s helpful to remember that we have to safeguard the time and energy needed to make it a priority. Knowing how to say no allows us to be intentional about what is most important to us. It’s also about managing time, energy and expectations so that we can say yes when it matters. Saying no to a good many things we don’t want to be busied with, allows us to say yes when we need to show up most.
Barriers to No
A simple syllable, no is still difficult for many people, for many reasons.
• We may not feel we have the right to take care of ourselves, to set limits or say no. We live in a culture where busyness is highly valued, which can minimize the importance of self-care, balance, relaxation or pursing pleasure or play. We can become organized around what we think we are supposed to be doing rather than being intentional about what we value.
• Saying no can make us feel like we are not a team player, we are letting someone down, or being selfish. Unneighborly, unchristian, uncharitable. The list goes on, despite the fact that we are not defined by one choice in a particular moment, but the balance of our many choices. We forget that saying yes to one thing may mean saying no to others.
• Setting limits can cause conflict, resistance or confrontation, which can be difficult to navigate. We often wrongly assume that our relationships cannot tolerate these tremors, which can contribute to an unnecessary and unsatisfying cycle of overaccommodating that becomes hard to change.
• Perfectionism can fuel the faulty idea that we should be able manage anything that is asked of us without feeling over-whelmed. And our emotional response to an ask should be unilaterally positive and cooperative.
• The universal FOMO – the fear of missing out: on the chance to be recognized, to be included socially, or to be engaged in something interesting. This is driven by the misperception that there is only going to be one opportunity to do something and that we won’t have the personal agency to create others, or the competency to be asked again.
• Finally, it may be something we really want to do, among many other things that we really want to do. It is always hardest to say no to something that appeals to us.
The Upside of No
Saying no is a skill that can help shape our days, our career, the quality of our family life and our relationships. It helps quiet the noise that can quickly fill our days when we aren’t intentional.
While a clear no can be challenging, learning the skill of a respectful decline reinforces the value in self-care and rejects the notion that we need to be entirely selfless. It reminds us that time is discretionary, and we can intentionally pursue what we value most for purpose or delight rather than just being performative. A respectful no is not a rebuke, it simply recognizes that we don’t have the capacity for something right now, and that saying yes would compromise the other opportunities we value.
It also helps to remember that most relationships that are intimate, reciprocal and satisfying are grounded in authenticity. This suggests there is room to recover from the disappointment or discomfort that may come with no. While there might be short-term disruption in relationships when we set limits, it often contributes to greater connection in the long run because it creates a stronger sense of personal agency, invites mutual accountability, and fosters the ability to be honest and to set and tolerate limits. Knowing what we most want to be positively and wholly engaged in helps us to get clear on what we need to say no to.
How to Say No
Even if we believe that saying no has its merits, we may not know how to execute on it. Like all skills, it takes practice and patience, but here are some guidelines:
• You don’t have to give a reason for your no, because that may leave room for people to negotiate or persuade you to accept. It may help to practice a simple “no, thank you” or “thank you for your kind invitation, but unfortunately I have to decline.” Other versions include:
I'm not able to do that right now
I have another commitment at that time, but appreciate you thinking of me
There are other things that need my attention right now and I need to focus on those
No, I won't be able to make it, but please let me know how it goes
I can't right now, but I know you will do a wonderful job
Experiment with what sounds most manageable to you. Write it out. Practice, so it becomes more familiar.
• If you are feeling uncertain or don’t know how to say no, don't give an immediate answer. Give yourself time and space to think about it, and to consider your own needs. You can always say, "I need a little time to think about it. I'll get back to you in." If pressed, let the person asking you know if they need an answer right away, you have to decline.
Creating some time gives you a chance to think about the “why” of your choice, and if it is consistent with what you genuinely want to do. What feelings come up for you if you don’t do what is being asked of you. Can they be tolerated? Are the negatives you are anticipating grounded in reality? Will that be better or worse than saying yes?
• Don't assume responsibility for someone else’s response to your limit. Your responsibility lies in being clear and respectful, not rationalizing your decision or making it okay for others.
• Start with incremental change. If a hard no is too stressful, start with smaller steps like not volunteering to take on things that you don’t want to do, waiting to see if others step in to take on a responsibility, or not responding immediately to a request. Be cautious of over-functioning out of habit. Learning to become more assertive can stir up some anxiety and takes times and practice.
• Know that if others have always known you to be accommodating, they may resist change and struggle to accept your assertiveness. In relationships that are especially important to you, try to stay connected, even if the other person reacts negatively to your limits. Sometimes it is helpful with those who’ve earned your trust, to share how hard it is for you to say no and ask them for support.
Saying no can be direct, gracious and respectful. Used deliberately, a selective no honors what is most important to us and gives us the room to show up in a meaningful way for what we value most. As we think about what we want to focus on in the new year, it helps to consider how a good no would work in the service of those goals.