6 Keys to the Art of Saying No

by Alli Polin on January 15, 2013

Leaders master the art of saying no so you can say yes to what matters most

 Are there people in your life you’d like to say no to?  Are you always saying yes even when you don’t have room in your life for more commitments?  The solution: Practice the Art of the No.  Like any other skill, it takes practice to find your groove, but every time you do, it will get easier to say no.

Why Say No?  Won’t People Hate Me?

No, they won’t hate you or despise you or give you the evil eye.  When you are intentional about when you say yes, and on the flip side, when you say no, you are officially in control of your time and energy.  Own your decisions and you’ll be able to take decisive action towards what matters most

What is the Art of the No?

Have you ever been around someone that says no to your request but somehow you still you walk away feeling heard, validated and valued?  That feeling – that’s the art of the no.

Ready to give an honest No? 

Engage with honesty and purpose, and yes or no, you’ll be an example for authenticity at its’ best.

1.  Be honest with yourself:  Quickly ask yourself a few questions:  Why do I want to say yes?  How does the idea of saying yes make me feel?  What’s the risk if I say yes?  What’s the risk if I say no?  Could I be wrong?  Am I making up a story here?

2.  Be honest with the requestor:  You can give a big long reason why your answer is “No” but that doesn’t change the reality of your response.  Giving a story, or worse, a story that is laced with a white lie to make someone feel better, doesn’t work in the long haul.

3.  Remember, you are the same: It doesn’t matter if it’s your boss, your child, your friend or your neighbor you’re the same – you’re all just people.  We all have our own needs and priorities.  Their needs are not greater than yours nor are yours greater than theirs.  However, you are the only person that can weigh your choices and make the right decision for you.

4.  Supportively offer an alternative: We’re not four years old and there is no need to shout “No” at someone and charge off in the opposite direction.  Recognize someone’s humanity and let them know you recognize the importance of their need although you still can’t help.  Try:  I can tell that this is important to you.  Let’s talk about how we can make this work another time.  If you want to open the door to deeper discussion on helping in the future, state that you want to help and let them know what’s stopping you. Ask: “Can we work together on this?”

5.  Get over the guilt:  When you say no, with love and peace in your heart instead of fear and guilt, you are fully embracing your own destiny.

6.  Stop talking: Simply say, “No” and don’t offer a “but” as if you are not allowed to stand up for your needs and priorities.  The more your talk, the more you’re trying to make yourself feel better for your response.  Live with the truth of your “No” and get clear on what you’re saying “Yes” to in your life in exchange.

Saying no is a critical step in creating, and living a balanced life.  With love and caring, you can put yourself first, and walk away with integrity.

How have you managed to say no and leave the guilt behind?  Hope you’ll share your story and your lessons learned in the comments below.

(Photo credit)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Forbes January 15, 2013 at 7:51 am

My wife and I have this discussion often. Finding balance is…well….a balancing act. Thanks for clarifying how to say, NO.


alli January 15, 2013 at 7:53 am

It is most definitely a balancing act! Saying “no” often brings guilt and hard feelings but it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks, Dan!


Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™ January 15, 2013 at 8:49 am

Hi Alli,
Important post and an issue that many self-employed face. I learned years ago that saying no in the right way relieves my stress and prevents stress in others.

It avoids building unreachable expectations and confusion that can cause resentment.

With clients, I offer alternative times if I am jammed up. In situations with potential customers whose expectations I know I cannot meet, I say “I will have to pass on this opportunity. Thank you for considering my services.”

Gentle honesty without lengthy reasons why seems to work well for me and many others I know.

Best wishes,


alli January 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Kate – Thanks for bringing up how tough of an issue it is for many that are self-employed. The pressure for a paycheck combined, with being solo, leads to too many yeses and inevitable overload. When we get to that point, not only are we hurting ourselves but also the quality of work that we are able to deliver. Saying no to customers feels like a huge risk yet, as you point out: “Gentle honesty without lengthy reasons why seems to work well for me and many others I know.”

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Kate!


Jon Mertz January 15, 2013 at 9:40 am

Alli, Great points, and number 5 may be the most important. We want to help out, and we may have an idea that we can take on anything. However, to get further in achieving specific goals and real purpose, we need to say “no” in order to realize our “yes” in life and work. Thanks! Jon


alli January 15, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Jon – Guilt plays a HUGE role for so many of us. Getting over the guilt so we can focus with integrity and confidence is incredibly hard. It’s a choice! When we have goals and purpose, and we’re aligned and listening to our inner-selves on where we need to focus our time and energy, it makes the no… easier.

Appreciate your feedback and insights, Jon!


Janine Truitt (@CzarinaofHR) January 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

As I continue to grow my business and balance the resposibilities of a home life and work life, I have learned out of necessity to say “no”. I’m still not comfortable with it in every situation, but I am getting better at it. Efficiency is of the utmost importance in keeping all of my endeavors afloat.

I am on a journey to feeling more and more comfortable with the word “no”.

Great post!




alli January 15, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Janine –

Sometimes our biggest lessons come down to just that: necessity. Thanks for sharing that even when it’s a skill most of us are not comfortable with, yet, with practice we do get better! I’m with you on the journey! 🙂

Thanks, Janine!


Kath Roberts January 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

An interesting lesson for us all Ali. It’s a frequent topic that comes up with so many women I coach because our natural inbuilt desire is to help, nurture and support and we’ve been conditioned into thinking that if we’re not multi-tasking we aren’t competent. Funny that when I stopped saying yes to everybody else’s needs I learnt to understand what I really wanted to do with my life and work and by doing far less and one thing at a time these days I get much further forward with my goals and feel so much less stressed as a reult.
My check these days is-does it interest me, if that’s a yes I ‘ll find the time, if not I’ll say no.


alli January 15, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Kath –

So spot on for many women: “If we’re not multi-tasking we aren’t competent.” The fact is, the less we multi-task, the more competent we become! Tuning into our stress and the cause can help to point us where we need to go. Thanks for being a role model!


Alice Chan January 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Hi Alli,
This is such a great topic, especially among women, most of whom are socialized to nurture and please. We fear that if we said “no” we would be failing in our “job.” Yet, when we lovingly stand up for our boundaries, we actually gain, not lose, respect. The key is to believe that we’re no less important and worthy than the folks we might reflexively feel we need to say “Yes” to.
Thanks for the clearly laid out steps.


alli January 15, 2013 at 5:49 pm


Women do struggle with saying no. I think that we rarely hear the phrase “doing it all” associated with men.

My last year as an executive on the road I was traveling and my son’s birthday was on the Friday I was coming home. I thought I had managed to squeeze in a business trip and breeze in the door for his celebration. Brilliant! Almost… a storm hit and a VIP from out of town couldn’t make his flight so my boss asked (demanded?) that I stay there with him. I missed his birthday celebration. I learned to say no to trips, no to bosses and yes to what I need to do to balance my career, while still showing love and care for my clients and my family.

Many thanks for your comment, Alice!


Kenny Nguyen May 4, 2013 at 10:30 am

Very good article! I recently shared a talk at a local TEDx on the power of saying no to big opportunities in the short term to pave the way for even BIGGER opportunities in the long term utilizing a sword and shield metaphor for the words “yes” and “no.



Alli Polin May 5, 2013 at 6:37 am

Thanks, Kenny! Enjoyed your talk. Great perspective: “No was meant to protect me.”


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