How Did You Learn To Say No?

Terrible at saying no? I used to be too.

October 14, 2022 | 3 minute read

I used to be terrible at saying No. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you struggle with it too.

If you’re like me, then it’s probably hard to say No because you don’t want to disappoint people. If my boss asked me for something, I’d often try to figure it out rather than feel like I was disappointing them. This led to a lot of unnecessary late nights working on things someone else could have done just as well, if not better, because they were juggling fewer projects.

The True Effect of Not Being Able to Say No

The great irony of not being able to say No is that the thing you’re trying hardest to avoid - disappointing people - often ends up happening anyway. If you struggle to say No, then you probably also struggle to see the true effect this behavior has on other people.

When someone asks if you can complete a project (for instance), they want to know that it can be done well, not just done. If you don’t say No and can’t do it in the way they need, you’re putting them in an even worse situation than the one they’re in now. Similarly, if someone you manage asks for something and you don’t give them the honest answer, you’re wasting their time.

I didn’t realize how bad it was to be on the receiving end of someone who can’t say No until I had a boss who was worse at it than I was. They actually let me spend weeks researching and developing a proposal for something I was really excited about only to still give me a half-No and not greenlight the project.

This is the thing you have to understand about not being able to say No: it’s a form of dishonesty. For the other person, it’s like being lied to. It’s actually worse than being lied to because you didn’t have the gall to actually lie and now that person is stuck in a fix and you’ve wasted their time.

How to Say No

A lot of people who struggle with saying No think they have to get to a point where they can just look someone dead in the eyes and say “No.” That’s what I thought. But the reason we have a hard time doing that is because we’re not sociopaths. If that’s your solution, to just coldly look into another human’s eyes and crush their hopes and dreams, then you’ve over-corrected and need to dial it back, way back.

Lucky for you - because you’re avoidant - the best way to say No is to actually not use the word “no” at all, unless you have to. Instead of saying No directly, you want to give the person one or more reasons why the answer is No. So instead of, “No” you can say, “we’re really close to hitting our budget and don’t have room this quarter to expense a trip to Fiji for the team.”

Constraints and priorities are your friends when it comes to letting people down easy (at work anyway). I often refer to one or both in my work with freelance clients. If a client proposes a new feature to a project, I can say, “I see why you need that feature, but we have to launch by next Friday and adding that in now would jeopardize our timeline.” Or I could say, “That sounds cool, but our highest priority right now is to stabilize the existing codebase. Can we come back to that idea in a future sprint?”

That brings us to the second thing you need to start saying No: acknowledging the other person. Remember, rejecting people flat out is for sociopaths. It’s also not a great way to build rapport. As humans, a better way to respond is to acknowledge the other person’s ask before turning them down: “The office chairs are really uncomfortable, but we just bought a new printer for the office.”

Parting Thoughts

I’ll leave you with this thought: your default answer to most questions should be No. First, it’ll give you a lot of practice, which you clearly need. Second, it’ll ensure you’re only focusing on the few things you absolutely can’t say No to. In an office of over-committing yes people (and the occasional sociopath), you’ll be a No hero.