How to Say No (Without Guilt or Being a Jerk)

say no

When you say yes to others, make sure you aren’t saying no to yourself.

– Paulo Coelho

Once upon a time, I said yes to just about everything. It wasn’t the enthusiastic “yes!” of an adventurous person facing something new, or the generous “yes!” of someone inspired to help.

My “yes” came from guilt, obligation, and a fear that saying no would mean losing friends, being mean, or making waves when I just wanted to hang out in the background.

I did favors I didn’t have time for, stayed late at work to do the grunt work no one else wanted to do, loaned money I didn’t have, went to places I didn’t enjoy, ate food I didn’t like, and generally tried to morph myself to fit every situation in front of me.

Frankly, it was exhausting.

As I moved through my twenties, it became harder for me to keep saying “yes” to everyone else because the result of this action meant saying “no” to myself. I wasn’t working the kind of job I wanted, enjoying the kind of relationship I craved or creating the kind of supportive friendships I needed.

Saying yes to everyone else meant saying no to myself. Finally, just after I turned 30, I said “no” in a very messy way. I up-ended my life, my work, and my relationship and made a not-so-clean break.

It did the trick, but wow, I could have handled that a lot better! In fact, I could have avoided the problem entirely by learning to say that simple phrase: NO. That’s what I want to share with you today in hopes that you’ll avoid the frustration, overwhelm, and desperate feeling of living a life that is not your own.

How to Say No in 5 Simple Steps

If you struggle to say no to invitations, relationships, commitments, purchases, and projects you don’t want in your life, try this method to regain some of your time, energy, money, and space back.

1. Compliment/Empathize

Just because you’re saying no doesn’t mean you don’t wish the other person well. Structuring your no with a compliment on their progress or an expression of empathy for their situation shows the other person you’re on their side.

“Wow, that sounds rough.”

“Your event is going to be huge!”

2. I Can’t “This Time”

These two words—”this time”—indicate to the other person that this no is a one-time deal. You aren’t rejecting them for future requests, and these words indicate you’ve likely said yes in the past. “This time” is a subtle yet effective reminder that your relationship is for the long-term, and saying no occasionally is not a big deal.

“I can’t loan you the money this time.”

“I can’t make it to the party this time.”

3. No Excuses = No Negotiation

A good no is not a negotiation. It is final. Getting into excuses and white lies is a path to disaster. I state personal boundaries that have nothing to do with the requestor, or I give no reason at all (depending on my level of closeness with the asker). You’d be surprised how well this works. People don’t take offense when you state your personal boundaries because it has nothing to do with them.

“I’ve made it a personal policy not to loan money until I get myself out of debt.”

“I need a low-key celebration this New Year’s Eve, so I’m staying in this year.”

4. Suggest Another Option and Back Off

If I know of another option for help, I’ll suggest it. But don’t get too involved with this. Saying no means backing away, not dabbling with advice, micro-managing, or Monday-morning quarterbacking.

“Have you thought of selling the treadmill in your garage for extra cash?”

“If you don’t have a DJ yet, I know Mark is looking for a gig.”

5. Clearly State Your No

The last one was the hardest for me to learn, and that is to say the actual word NO. I tried to soften the blow with phrases like “I don’t think so” or “I’m not sure” instead of just saying NO. I wanted the other person to take the hint without me having to say it, but the truth is, you have to. If you don’t use the word no, you leave people hanging. They aren’t sure of your answer, and when it finally gets down to the wire, they resent you for not being clear in the first place.

“No, I can’t loan you the money this time.”

“No, I can’t come to your party this time.”

Why No Leads to More Yes

Once “no” became part of my regular vocabulary, my life transformed. By saying no to dozens of small requests, I’ve been able to help more people through bigger projects. Focus and clarity led me to achieve goals I thought were out of reach.

My relationships, work, and life are full and satisfying, and it no longer terrifies me to say no to requests, purchases, relationships, and projects that don’t fit in my life.

Because I now know the secret: When you say NO to what you don’t want, you’ll have plenty of space in your life to say YES to what does.

What are you tired of saying “yes” to in your life?

Photo by Magdalena Roeseler

13 thoughts on “How to Say No (Without Guilt or Being a Jerk)”

  1. Thanks indeed for your advise. Sometimes we need to realize that some people just steal from us what they need, even unconsciously.
    In this very moment, I am dealing with one of these situations, and your message hit me very deep.

    1. Hi, Pablo. Sometimes people do try to take too much, but often they are simply asking for more than what we have to give in the moment. It is up to us to draw those boundaries, and I wish you well as you work to do that in your current situation. The good news is that saying no gets easier with practice.

      1. Hi, Betsy. Thanks so much. There are so many things to learn… but too late is never!
        Special thanks for spending your time answering to me.
        See you in An Uncluttered Life ;-)

    1. Yes, saying no to the wrong things builds confidence in yourself because you’re honoring your own priorities and boundaries. And you have the time and energy to do more of what you love!

  2. Saying no is something that has so much value. I know that when I started saying no it freed my mind. I didn’t feel any kind of resentment to others because they persuaded me to do something.
    Say NO.

  3. This is a great piece of advise. But when it comes to raising a toddler, saying “yes” could gain parents positive results. Although it doesn’t come naturally, but the “yes” method of child rearing, according to child experts, is far more effective than its exact opposite which is the “no” method. Oftentimes, parents who make it a habit to say no to almost everything concerning their children would, actually and in fact, only be getting a pout, kick, or even a scream in return until the white flag is raised. Then they will realize there has to be a better way so that by next time that their children make a request it has to be approved first by saying yes, unless there’s a very good point why they have to really mean no.

  4. Hello Betsy!

    This was a much needed read for me. I am where you once was: I find it extremely difficult to say no. Sometimes I even feel like I am committing a sin whenever I deny someone what they want.

    I will try to put your advice to work and hopefully I find it easier to mouth “no” to things I really don’t want.

    Thanks for the insight,


  5. Hi, You have penned down my exact nature about saying “NO”. Though I read a similar article in Cleo Singapore magazine years back but still couldn’t bring myself to say no. Result? People took my sweetness for a ride–from relatives to fellow students.
    But now I will say no if if the need be.

  6. Hi Betsy,

    I’m curious how you found this to affect your relationships with people – especially those you’ve always said “yes” to? Like family, for example. I feel as if my family is always expecting me to ‘say yes.’

    Interested to hear your thoughts!

    Thanks :)

    1. Hey Jen,

      although it seems to be very frightening, just try to say no and be curious about the results. But you have to keep in mind, that probably your family is not ready for this and will not understand what you are doing in those moments. Then just keep calm, don’t take the reactions of your family members personally and stay at your path :)

  7. Hello,
    Thanks for your article, I have known the same experience in my life.
    When I have learned say “No” my life has unlocked the way that I wanted taking. I needed lot of time but today I’m free!
    A very good example: the movie “Rocky”, Stallone have known to say “No”… I invite you to know more about: when I have read about it I’m felt so proud ! ;-)

  8. Thank you for this wonderful post on a very important topic! Admittedly, I have no middle ground; I either agree to do things I don’t want to or demonstrate annoyance at the person requesting the favor. It is a skill I am still working on, both personally and professionally. You gave some great, concrete examples of how to accomplish this. I can’t wait to try it!!

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