How to say “no” more effectively and assertively

How much do you value yourself? Do you value yourself enough to say “no” to those things and those situations that do not work for you?

How seriously do people take you? Do they believe you when you say “no?” Or do they think they can grind you into submission?

One of the critically important life skills to get through life is the ability to say “no” effectively and assertively.

Here are a few guidelines I suggest.

►1. Be aware of those situations or those people where it is difficult to say “no.”

If you’re going to get better at saying “no,” you need to be keenly aware where you tend to give in with a “yes.”

That way you won’t be taken off guard and regret your response later on.

Perhaps you have difficulty in refusing a social invitation from a friend, acquaintance, or relative, even though you don’t want to go. You may have difficulty saying “no” to a boss’ directive that seems a bit unethical. Or you may have a hard time saying “no” to person who keeps asking for money when they could and should be financially independent.

Write down three “situations” where it is difficult for you to say “no.” And write down the names of people you have hard time saying “no” to. Awareness is your first line of defense.

►2. Remember you have the right to say “no.”

Yes you do. You have the right. And if you don’t believe that, you’re in big trouble.

You’ve got to realize it’s your life, your time, your money, your resources, whatever. And you have the right to say “no” to requests, especially if the other person’s request is unreasonable or violates your principles.

There’s a book on the market that is entitled, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. That may be true. That may be how you feel. But I’m telling you to get over it.

►3. Say the word “no” as soon as possible.

If you say anything else, the other person hears “maybe.” And they’ll keep on trying, pushing, arguing, and manipulating you to say “yes.”

As I tell my coaching clients, “No” is a complete sentence.” Of course there are times you might want to explain your “no.” I talk about that below. But when it comes to strangers, you needn’t bother. Just say “no” and only “no.”

►4. Be direct.

If your answer is “no,” say “no.” Skip the excuses and false reasons. Just be direct.

For example, Jorge was asked by Ellen if she could borrow his class notes a few days before an upcoming professional examination. Jorge responded with an indirect … and ineffective … refusal.

Jorge: “Well, my handwriting is not very good. I don’t think you’d be able to read my notes.”

Ellen: “My handwriting is not very good either. I don’t mind.”

Jorge: “And my notes are so disorganized. I doubt they’ll be of any help.”

Ellen: “Well any notes would be better than the ones I have.”

Jorge: “But I don’t have them with me. They’re back at the office.”

Ellen: “That’s no problem. I’ll just follow along as you drive back to the office.”

Jorge: “Well, okay.”

When you don’t say the actual word “no,” a number of negative things happen. Like Jorge, you’ll probably run out of excuses and end up saying “yes.” When you do say “yes,” you’ll resent yourself for giving in, and you’ll resent the other person for “talking you into it.” And the other person won’t even appreciate your “yes” because she had to work too hard to get it. It’s a no-win situation.

You’ve got to be direct. If you’re going to say “no,” skip the excuses.

►5. Give an appropriate explanation.

When you turn down people at work or with whom you have a relationship, you will probably want to explain your “no.” My overall suggestion is just keep it honest and short.

You have some choices when it comes to explanations. Choose the one that best fits your situation.

With regard to our example above, Jorge could have used an “I-don’t-want” statement. He could have said, “No, I don’t want to loan the notes out so close to the exam.”

Or he could have used a “feeling” statement. He could have described the feelings behind his refusal. Jorge might have said, “No, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable parting with them.”

Another option is the “empathic assertion.” In other words, express your understanding of the other person’s need, but firmly assert your reason for refusing to help. If your coworker wants you to stay after work to help him complete a report, you could say, “I can see you’re in a bind, but I’ve made some plans with my family that I’m unwilling to cancel.”

Sometimes your appropriate explanation is one of “mixed feelings.” You decide to disclose the struggle that is caused by the other person’s request.

Let’s say, for example, that your manager suggests you give the customer a less-than-honest response about your shipping dates. He suggests you tell the customer there would be no problem in getting his order to him.

A “mixed feelings” statement might sound something like this: “Part of me would like to tell the customer his order will be there on time, but the other part knows that manufacturing is so backed up that we won’t be able to do that. I need to be honest with the customer and tell him we’ll do everything we can to get his order out on time, but there’s a chance it will take a bit longer. My personal ethics require that I tell the truth.”

There are other times when your refusal is a partial “no” instead of a total “no.” In those cases, use the next guideline.

►6. Clarify your limits of acceptance.

You may be willing to do a part of what the other person is asking, or you may be willing to do it under certain conditions. In those cases, clarifying your limits of acceptance can be very useful. And it may be politically wise when you’re refusing requests from people who hold power over you.

In this approach, you are saying, in essence, “I won’t/can’t do such and such, but I am willing to do or can do blank and blank.”

If Jorge used this guideline, he could have said, “I won’t loan out my notes, but I will let you copy the ones you need while we’re at lunch.”

Or it may be appropriate to tell your teammate, “I can’t stay after work today. I can come in earlier tomorrow morning if you really need the help.”

Do something today to make your “yes’s” mean “yes” and your “no’s” mean “no.”

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