How to Say No and Mean It

| | Personal Leadership

Do you or someone you know have a hard time saying “no”?

“Yes” is certainly a much easier and more socially acceptable response, especially if you want to be perceived positively and/or as a team player.  It can even feel good, at least in the moment you say it anyway.

Unfortunately, saying “yes” to too many things is also a way to get yourself overcommitted and can lead to feelings of overwhelm and/or resentment.  In fact, saying “yes” can actually end up being more costly than whatever you fear that might be keeping you from saying “no”.

Nonetheless, saying “no” can be very hard for a multitude of reasons, both personal and circumstantial.  You may genuinely want to say “yes” despite having reservations.  Perhaps saying “yes” is your way of making others happy or prove you are committed or worthy.

If someone who is your “superior” in some way, like a boss or teacher, is making the request, you may not even believe “no” is an option.  Depending on the context of the relationship, “no” may not be an option, at least not from the requestors point of view.  In some cases a request is actually a demand in disguise, phrased to be polite or politically correct.

The real dilemma though doesn’t show up until after you say “yes” or “no”.

“No” is pretty simple when it comes to interpreting what you mean.  And when someone says “yes” to you the meaning is pretty simple, too – it means they will do what you have requested.

Saying “yes” on the other hand has a plethora of possible meanings, many of which are fraught with risk to the person who is making the request and is counting on you.  If you are not mindful, these alternate meanings can also put your relationships at risk.

Before you can say “no” and mean it, I’ll suggest you must first become very aware of what your “yes” would mean in the moment you make your choice.

Here are just some of the typically unspoken meanings behind a “yes” that can cause problems later on:

Yes [I’ll say it just so you go away]: you will probably forget anyway or it is a stupid request and if I just give it some time you’ll see it my way, etc.

Yes [because I don’t really have a choice, although I would rather not]: a compliant response often accompanied by resentment and/or a bad attitude.

Yes [I’ll try]:  I will do my best, but only if circumsatnces allow (i.e., something else doesn’t come up, it’s not too hard, it doesn’t take too much time, etc.)

Yes [I’ll put it on my to do list]:  and do it as soon as I can get to it.

Yes [but ____]: a silent “but ___” is a warning sign expectations will not likely be met. although whatever comes after the “but” may turn out to be a great excuse.

All of these versions of “yes” are uncommitted responses that are bound to have negative consequences.  They can be costly in terms of your reputation, your relationship with others, and even your relationship with yourself.

Perhaps “no” would be a lot easier to say if you stopped to consider:  am I willing to take that risk?

So how do you say “no” and mean it?

First consider whether you can say “yes, I promise” authentically or not.

If not, here are your options:

  • Say “yes” by communicating what you mean so expectations are clear.
  • Choose to say “no” because that is the honest answer and be willing to stay in the conversation to help the person making the request figure out a way to get what they need and/or determine who else can help them.
  • Choose to say “no”, ready to accept whatever consequences good or bad there might be.
  • And if you find you are saying “yes, I promise” because you feel you have no choice and would rather not, remember this: you always have a choice.  Except in this case the choice may not be about the request at hand, but rather about whether you want this relationship to continue or not.

The bottom line…Don’t just say “yes” or “no”: choose based on your commitments. 

Sure it may be simple, but not always easy.  Do it anyway and you will strenghten the foundation of your leadership – the integrity of your relationship with yourself and others.


Enter A Comment

Christopher Avery   |   14 June 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Susan, the most responsible people I know tend to be deliberate with their attention — the scarce resource in what is usually mislabeled “time management.” The best “no” I recall receiving was from a CEO I had heard speak and I just knew he would want to hear about my great idea. So I contacted his office and asked his executive assistant how to propose something to him. She told me how and I submitted it. A week later she called me back and said Mr. Big says “Congratulations on your important work. I hope you will continue to pursue it as it is valuable. I won’t be a candidate to meet with you as requested as your proposal does not intersect with my number 1, number 2, or number 3 priorities this month, this quarter, or this year. Thank you.”

Susan Mazza   |   17 June 2012   |   Reply

Your story is a wonderful demonstration of choosing based on your commitments. And you offer an excellent distinction Christopher – deliberate attention vs. time management. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

Jennifer V. Miller   |   14 June 2012   |   Reply


This is always a favorite topic of mine and thank you for giving such concrete suggestions for how to say no. Sometimes we just lack the actual words to use, and this post definitely shows us how.

Susan Mazza   |   17 June 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Jennifer!

Mike Henry   |   15 June 2012   |   Reply

Susan, thanks for the great reminders. My life got a lot easier when I learned, especially with superiors, to ask a follow up question before answering. That question is some form of “What do you want me to postpone so I can get this done?” Often the answer is “Everything,” but sometimes the answer may also be “Nothing.” Knowing that makes it easier to meet expectations and still answer peacefully with integrity.

Thanks. Mike…

Susan Mazza   |   17 June 2012   |   Reply

What a great question to ask Mike. This question can also facilitate and important shift in the relationship between a subordinate and their boss – it is a powerful way to shift the content of a boss to subordinate communication from one of giving and taking orders to one of negotiating for what makes sense (and is likely to work best for everyone involved). Thanks for your contribution to the conversation!

David Sparks   |   18 June 2012   |   Reply

Saying no has always been difficult for me because I love to help people. After a few failures do to over committing, I’ve learned that some times – no is the only answer for everyone’s sake. You’re absolutely right – you must prioritize a variety of things to give the best yes/no answer.

Susan Mazza   |   18 June 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your experience with “no” David.