How To Say No – And When To Say Yes

When you know HOW to say “No” and WHEN to say “Yes,” you will have power.

On the first day of my Peak Performance Boot Camp, you learn how to achieve more than you ever thought possible. You learn techniques that are truly life- changing.

The second day focuses on how you can be more effective with others. Whether it is your employees, team members, customers, or family members, you learn how to motivate the best in others. You learn how to gain their willing, enthusiastic cooperation. A small part of that process comes in the appropriate use of the words “Yes” and “No.”

Last week I talked about the self-defeating beliefs that make it difficult for people to say “No,” that make it difficult for them to take charge of their lives. This week I want to tell you how to say “No.” There are three guidelines.

First, BE DIRECT. Don’t make excuses. Jorge’s and Ellen’s situation provide an example. Jorge was asked to loan his class notes a few days before an upcoming professional examination. Here’s the indirect way he tried to refuse the request.

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 “No,” a number of negative things happen. 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.

Second, ADD AN APPROPRIATE EXPLANATION. When you turn down people at work or with whom you have a relationship, your open, honest, assertive explanation will help them accept your “No.” When it comes to strangers, you needn’t bother. Just say “No” and only “No.”

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 a third guideline. CLARIFY YOUR LIMITS OF ACCEPTANCE. You may be unwilling to do a part of what’s asked or be willing to do it under certain conditions. This approach is particularly useful when refusing requests from people who hold power over you.

In essence, you are saying, “I won’t/can’t do ____________. I will/can do ______________.” 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.”

Basically it boils down to this. You’re either living your life or someone else’s. The only way you’ll live your life is to say “No” when you really want to say “No.” And say it like you mean it.


Action:  Think of a request someone is about to make of you. Think of a request you’ve been dreading, but you know it’s coming. Instead of being caught off guard or stumbling through your refusal with some weak-kneed excuses, resolve to say “No” and offer one of the appropriate explanations outlined in today’s Tip. Plan out your response in advance, and you’ll be quite effective.