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How to Say No: Tips and Tools

How to Say No: Tips and Tools


Assertiveness has never been my strong point. Maybe that's why I watch people who are really good at it, read books and take courses on it, and practice whenever I can.

The impetus for my current life's work teaching conflict and communication skills actually grew out of my inability to express myself. 

I was a successful real estate agent and company owner back in 80's, and I often found myself in the middle of a heated contest between buyer and seller or with a banker, building inspector, or concerned family member. My default conflict style is to accommodate other people’s wishes, and that isn’t always useful in negotiated transactions.

The clash that ultimately drove me to become a student of conflict was with the manager of an agency I worked for early in my career. She was new at the job and had controlling style. I was used to a lot of freedom, and I almost left the company because I couldn’t express that her style felt smothering to me. Luckily, a leader higher up the company ladder saw my unhappiness and offered to send me to a week-long training program that he’d previously attended.

During that training, I was introduced to aikido and its countless applications, including its use in addressing conflict, solving problems, and determining one’s purpose. I had found my calling and in 1993, I formed Power & Presence Training.

How to Say No -- Positively!

Over the years I've learned that assertiveness is my ability to:

  • Say no
  • Express a different opinion
  • Ask for what I want

If you have difficulty with any of the above, like me you're probably struggling with finding the right combination of courage and kindness. I’ve found that the following practices and mindsets will add to your power and presence when you're afraid to say no in whatever form it takes:

1) You have the right--to say no, express your opinion and ask for what you want or need. You have the right to take up space, to stand up for your values, and live your life as you wish. When you're used to discounting your needs, it can be hard to actually know what they are. So take the time to discover what is at the bottom of your discomfort and practice articulating it.

2) They also have the right--to say no to your request, express their own opinion, or offer a compromise. I often negotiate in my head for the other party thinking, for example, that because they probably will say no, I shouldn't ask. Case in point: I might think my services are worth a certain fee but I ask for less, thinking they probably can't or won't approve that number. I start mentally negotiating for both sides. Lately, I'm learning negotiate for my side and let others speak for themselves. I can ask, and they can say yes or no, or offer something in between.

3) Yes, and.... Try not to get caught it a "fool's choice." Don't be courageous or kind, firm or understanding. Be both. True assertiveness is both...and. You can acknowledge the other person's need and state your own. For example, "I'd like to talk with you about finances for this project. I know this isn't your favorite topic. And I'd like to discuss next month's budget. Can we do that?"

In his book, Adversaries into Allies: Master the Art of Ultimate Influence, Bob Burg writes convincingly about mastering the art of influence by turning adversarial relationships into partnering ones. In a video on the topic, he gives the following examples about how to say no or request clarification.

  • Thank you for asking. While it’s not something I’d like to do, I’m honored to be asked. 
  • I’d rather not, but thank you so much for asking.
  • Just for my own clarification, when you say asap, is there a specific day or time you’re thinking of?

My current favorite book on the topic of assertiveness is William Ury's, The Power of a Positive No: Save The Deal, Save The Relationship, and Still Say No. Ury offers a simple 3-step process: Yes, No, Yes.

  • Uncover and express your YES -- your purpose, value, or belief. What's important to you or what you really want.
  • Empower and Assert your NO -- what you can't or won't do.
  • Respect and propose another YES -- what is an alternate option?

One possible example:

YES:  "Thank you for your invitation to serve on the board of your organization. I have nothing but respect for your values and the work you do. And, I have work and family commitments that are high priority right now, so...

NO: I have to say no at this time.

YES: I hope you'll check with me in the future.

The next time assertiveness feels like an either/or choice, think both...and or Yes, No, Yes, and see if it helps you state what's important to you with courage and kindness.

Read more about the differences between assertive, passive or aggressive communication in an earlier post -- A Culture of Advocacy: How to be Strong AND Kind.