I get it — saying no to others in your life can be incredibly difficult. I’ve had trouble myself saying “No” many times. But whether it’s to a partner, a friend, a co-worker, or even your boss, sometimes you just have to say no if you want to protect your own sanity.
Here are four sure-fire ways to say no without feeling guilty.
Know Your Own Needs & Limits
Before you can successfully navigate saying no, you need to be consciously aware of your own needs and limits. This is a problem for many, because they aren’t always aware of their needs or limits — until the stress has become overwhelming. When the stress becomes overwhelming and takes over a person’s sleep, focus, and relationships, that’s when it’s usually too late.
To be more successful in life, it helps to better understand your needs. Why are you taking on one more projects or responsibility when you know you really don’t have room in your schedule to do so? What does never saying, “No” do for your own sense of identity or self-esteem? Is it playing a need-based role in your life, one that maybe you’re not really even aware of?
What about your limits? Every human has them, but few of us acknowledge them freely — especially not even to ourselves. What are your limits? Do you know you’re reaching your limits before you reach them or after? What are some of the ways you can become more aware of those limits beforehand? One way is to write things down that you notice seem to precede your feelings of being overwhelmed — perhaps there were warning signs?
4 Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty
Now that you have a better handle on your needs and limits (or at least have begun thinking about them), you’re ready to say, “No” in your life. These scenarios assume the person asking for your help or assistance with something is doing so in an honest manner (e.g., they’re not playing games with you for either control, power, or some other reason).
1. I’d love to help, but I’m overwhelmed right now.
This expresses your intention and desire to be helpful, but acknowledges your limits. Nobody knows your schedule and those limits better than you. So the only reasonable person who can be a gatekeeper to that knowledge is you.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s likely because you ARE overwhelmed. Saying this directly reminds the person you’re telling that you’re human, you have limits, and you know you’ve reached them. Most people respect such a direct refusal due to already being overwhelmed.
2. I’m not the best person who can help with that. Here’s who can.
Acknowledging the limits of your expertise is a great way to say no, while giving the person another resource to try. As with every denial, you have to choose your battles. When a manager at work is asked to chip in with the line workers, the manager may indeed not be as well-trained on the job she is being asked to do. But she may be needed nonetheless (e.g., there’s no one else to ask or to call), so the manager has to decide whether it’s best for her standing in the company to accept the request or not.
When less experienced or knowledgeable people try to do a job — simply because they were asked — it can often result in a job being poorly done. When the person asking is reminded that you’re not the best person to do the task requested, it also lets them know that forcing the issue may have unintended results.
3. I’m in the middle of doing X. Is this something that either you (or I) could do later, or have Y do now?
Sometimes we’re asked to do something while we’re doing something else already. For many, this is an inconvenience at best. At worst, it may mean stopping in the middle of a messy or concentration-intensive task. Maybe the person doing the asking didn’t realize you were in the middle of doing something else. That’s why it helps to ask about the time-sensitivity of the request, while gently suggesting if it needs to be done right away, maybe someone else could handle it.
Everyone thinks they can multitask well. Research has demonstrated how wrong this is, and only a small minority of the population is actually somewhat good at multitasking. Wanting to finish what you’re already working on is a sign of responsibility and perseverance.
4. Yes, I can help you with that. But it’ll have to wait until later, is that okay?
The best, “No” is often a no in disguise of a “Yes.” This is actually true any time we’re asked to do something. Without going into detail or explanations (because, again, you’re the best expert of your own time and schedule), you can accept the task or request, but not committing to do it right away. This may or may not work for the person doing the asking.
What you’re doing is giving the other person a way out, if they choose to take it. A followup question might be, “Well, how much later?” and you can give them an honest assessment of when you might have time for it. This puts the onus of responsibility back onto the asker to determine whether the task can wait or not.
But What if They Continue to Push or Make Me Feel Guilty?
I think it’s many people’s nature to feel badly when someone asks us for our help and we turn them down. Most of us want to be helpful, so we feel a little guilty for having to say no. It’s a natural reaction.
But nobody can make us feel anything. Each person is in control (or not in control) of their own feelings. If you feel guilty when you want to say, “No” to something, that’s on you — not the person doing the asking. Learn to talk back to those guilty feelings by saying something like, “I have to say no, because I’m just overwhelmed with things to do. If I take this on, I’ll probably do it poorly, or put one of these other things that absolutely must get done.”
Sticking to your “No” can be difficult, as some people like to pry to try and get more information about why you’re feeling overwhelmed, or exactly how packed your schedule is. This may be simple curiosity, or it may be an attempt to violate the boundaries you’re trying to set in the relationship. Depending on how persistent they’re being, typically your best course of action is to resist getting into too much detail or further explanation. The asker is looking for ways to poke holes in your solid “No” and turn it into a “Maybe” or “Yes.”
Be just as persistent in your responses, and you’ll be fine. “I understand you want to know more about why I’m feeling overwhelmed, but I’d rather not get into it with you. I just can’t do it, but I appreciate your asking.” or “I’d prefer not going through all the things I’m working on at the moment, but needless to say my schedule is just booked through the month. Can X perhaps help you instead?”
Remember — it is always your right to say, “No” to things when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, too busy, or just can’t take on one more thing. Defend that right when you need to.